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FYI Number 34: March 26, 2002

Research Subcommittee, Witnesses Support Higher NSF Funding

As the FY 2003 appropriations cycle gets underway on Capitol Hill, members of the House Science Committee are already working to get funding for the National Science Foundation increased above the President's request of $5.04 billion. At a March 13 hearing of the House Science Subcommittee on Research, Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) proclaimed himself an "unabashed cheerleader" for NSF, and told witnesses that he would use their testimony to make the case for higher NSF funding to appropriators. Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) described how committee members were "aggressive" in trying to get NSF funding increased in the House Budget Committee's version of a budget resolution. On that same day, the Budget Committee approved a resolution containing an 11 percent increase for NSF - 6 percent more than the Administration requested. As evidence that the current NSF budget is too low, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), highlighted concerns that not enough good research proposals were being funded, grants were often not sufficient to allow completion of research projects, and researchers spent too much time writing proposals and chasing limited dollars.

These same concerns were echoed by the witnesses, who all advocated higher funding for the foundation. They testified to the beneficial impact of NSF grants on an entire research university, the career of a single faculty member, the nation's economy, and the vitality of a large company. All concurred that NSF's average grant size and duration, the low success rate for proposals (about 30 percent), and underfunding in many areas of science were having negative impacts, including causing faculty to seek research funding elsewhere, discouraging students from pursuing scientific careers, and straining the historic linkage between conducting research and educating the next generation of scientists. An additional concern was the fact that federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has remained relatively flat over the past decade.

Stephen Director, Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, testified to the importance of NSF funding for the "intellectual vigor" of research universities and, ultimately, the nation. But, he said, the success rate for NSF grants is generally considered "detrimental to encouraging the submission of the best ideas." Many faculty members, he reported, change the nature of their research programs to seek funding from the mission agencies instead. Karen Harpp, a geologist at Colgate University, said that NSF fellowships and grants had helped her attend graduate school, pursue an interest in interdisciplinary studies, collaborate with colleagues, develop an undergraduate curriculum, and provide research opportunities for students. Harpp spoke enthusiastically of "how my one grant fairly directly influenced my students:" eight are in graduate school, three went to scientific careers in industry, four are teaching at the K-12 level, and six others are considering graduate degrees.

Pennsylvania State University economist Irwin Feller described NSF's positive impact on universities, both by enhancing the research infrastructure, and as a catalyst in promoting interdisciplinary research and strengthening the link between research and education. He warned that continued underfunding in certain fields of science would threaten all these aspects. Scott Donnelly, General Electric's Senior Vice President for Global Research, said that although GE was increasing its investment in high-risk, long-term research, industry's role in general is to translate the results of basic research into products. GE still relied upon federal support of basic research for fundamental discoveries and its scientific workforce, he said, and needed "the same vibrancy" coming from the physical sciences and engineering as from biomedical fields.

Feller outlined a series of allocation and management criteria for research funding: intellectual excitement at the frontiers, contributions to national priorities, capabilities of American universities, documented performance, and competitive, merit- based review of proposals. He argued that, based on these criteria, NSF deserved a budget increase of 8-10 percent, excluding major research equipment and facilities. Advocating a doubling or tripling of the NSF budget, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) asked whether the scientific community would join in helping sell this message to the American public. Historically, Donnelly said, it has proven most effective to sell a "mission" that people can rally around, such as the Space Race, the Cold War, or a cure for cancer. "We have a mission right now," Director remarked, but unfortunately, that mission is protecting the security of the nation.

Science Committee Chairman Boehlert picked up on this theme and, on the spot, drafted his own mission statement for higher NSF funding: "Better jobs at higher pay in an even more robust economy for a healthier America in a world of peace. It's that simple; that's what we're talking about." He declared that determining future NSF budgets was "a no-brainer: up in every single aspect." NSF, he said, was far from the point of receiving more money than it could sensibly use. Feller added that, based on the Administration's own management and performance criteria, greater funding for NSF was justified. He warned that without it, researchers and students would continue to be discouraged and the stresses on the nation's research enterprise would be perpetuated.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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