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FYI Number 44: April 15, 2002

House Appropriators Express Strong Support for FY 2003 NSF Funding

Last week's hearing on the NSF budget by the House VA, HUD, Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee was uncomfortable at times. Held in a historic, ornate, but small room off one of the main corridors in the Capitol building, the physical layout of the room ensures unambiguous communication between appropriators and witnesses. The hearing's bottom line: appropriators are not impressed by the Bush Administration's FY 2003 request for the National Science Foundation. Representing the Administration was NSF Director Rita Colwell, who found herself being pressured to fully explain the Administration's request.

Subcommittee chairman James Walsh (R-NY), sitting about three feet across a table from Colwell, began by telling the director that the "figures are a little deceptive," with the requested 5% increase "not nearly as hefty an increase as it would seem." While this is much higher than the 1.3% increase requested a year ago, Walsh said that the figure included program transfers from USGS, Commerce, and EPA. The request, he commented, "is still pretty meager." These three words largely captured the mood of this 75-minute hearing.

Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D-WV) was even more critical. He pronounced himself disappointed by the Administration's request, and said of the 5.1% recommended increase for the Research and Related Activities budget that "it does leave me wondering."

Walsh and his colleagues raised many of the concerns being expressed in the physical sciences community. The chairman spoke of projected declines in funding for foundation- supported physics facilities. Walsh described the importance of physical sciences to economic development. Why, he asked Colwell, was the Administration requesting these reductions? Colwell explained that priorities had to be set. Walsh then wanted to know why reductions were proposed for core research programs to finance special programs. Again, Colwell said, "we are responding to priorities."

Walsh then addressed National Science Board Chairman Eamon Kelly. At the outset of the hearing, Walsh lauded Kelly for his chairmanship of the Board, saying that his efforts were instrumental in securing larger budgets for the foundation. Walsh pressed for an explanation concerning why funding had not been requested for IceCube R&D and the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research. Kelly said both were a "high priority." Walsh spoke of concern about how priorities are set, and asked Kelly for a description of the procedure. After describing how the Board acts, Kelly said it was not a process problem, "but a funding problem."

Mollohan was even more direct. Describing the request as "inadequate," he declared it "doesn't reflect the kind of interest" there is in supporting basic research. Colwell replied that the foundation had been singled out for enhanced funding, to which a somewhat bemused Mollohan said, "am I missing something?" Colwell responded that "compared to other science budgets, we have done very well . . . this budget addresses our immediate needs."

Mollohan turned his attention to the proposed program transfers. Did you request these transfers, he asked the director? "No." What is the rationale? Colwell described the "administrative excellence" of the foundation's management. Mollohan pressed harder: is this the sole rationale? After a series of give-and-takes, Colwell at last said of the transfer plan: "It is not my highest priority."

Next up was Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ). "I think you need to raise your visibility" he said about the foundation. The "public perception is not as great as it should be." David Price (D-NC) spoke of the "virtual flat-lining" of the request. How can the Administration claim to be a supporter of medical research when it is not investing sufficiently in basic research, he wanted to know? Colwell responded that the foundation was working to increase grant size and duration. Price was also disturbed about proposed cuts in advanced technology education funding at junior colleges. Later in the hearing, Joseph Knollenberg (R-MI) enthusiastically the potential of nanotechnology, a sentiment also shared by David Hobson (R-OH).

Walsh wanted a clarification about the modernization status of the South Pole research stations, praising the work completed thus far. He described the damaging effects of acid rain on lakes in New York's Adirondacks and cited the proposed start of the National Ecological Observatory Network. Price asked about performance metrics, Colwell saying they were exploring this matter with the Office of Management and Budget. Kelly added that budget judgements would be made, regardless of how difficult the data is. There was brief discussion about bringing more women into the S&T workforce, raising stipends, and the Math-Science Partnership program. There was no discussion of the proposed underground laboratory in South Dakota.

About eleven months ago, a similar hearing was held on the NSF budget request, with many of the same people at the table. Similar complaints and rationales were expressed. When House and Senate appropriators concluded their work last year, the Bush Administration's request of 1.3% was increased to 8.4%.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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