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
Mollohan was even more direct. Describing the request as
"inadequate," he declared it "doesn't reflect the kind
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
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
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%.