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FYI Number 56: May 8, 2002

Science Committee Poised to Pass NSF "Doubling" Bill

"This bill will help NSF get the real money it needs to succeed in all its tasks," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) told a standing-room-only audience yesterday about a new bill to put the National Science Foundation on track to a doubling of its budget within five years. Boehlert was describing H.R. 4664, sponsored by Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) and cosponsored by 16 representatives from both parties.

This bill represents a Science Committee milestone in the drive to increase science and technology funding that began in early 1997 with a Senate bill to double civilian S&T spending. While the Senate eventually passed such legislation, a similar bill never made it through the Science Committee. H.R. 4664 gives an important boost to both NSF and efforts to significantly increase civilian, non-biomedical research funding.

Proposals to "double" science budgets have had a mixed track record. The NIH is in the final year of a successful five year plan to double its budget. Other science budgets have been less successful. When asked to explain the rationale for the five year doubling projection for the NSF, Boehlert declared that it was an "appeal to having a lofty and ambitious goal."

In describing the merits of H.R. 4664, Smith, the bill's prime mover, said he hoped the House "leadership and appropriators will concur" and support the legislation's objectives. Boehlert later explained that continuing meetings had been held with OSTP Director John Marburger, OMB Director Mitch Daniels, and with the Senate. "I anticipate no major difficulty" Boehlert said, although no one outside the Science Committee had yet committed to a number.

The number that Boehlert is referring to is 15%. The bill authorizes a 15% increase in NSF funding for the next three fiscal years, on a path to a five year doubling of its budget. Amounts are specified for Research and Related Activities, further broken down for Information Technology, Nanotechnology, Mathematical Sciences, and Major Research Instrumentation. Also specified is spending for Education and Human Resources, Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction, Salaries and Expenses, and the NSF Inspector General.

Section 7 of this bill will attract considerable attention. As described by the committee, the objective is to "provide greater transparency to the process through which major research and facilities construction projects are evaluated, prioritized, and selected for funding." Smith said that "some of us have been uncomfortable" with how political pressures have influenced funding decisions in the appropriations process. Under this bill, the National Science Board would approve projects for inclusion in a future budget request. The NSF Director would then indicate by number (1, 2, 3, etc.) the relative assigned priority for each project. This list would then be submitted to the Board for approval. The list is to be updated as needed. A detailed report would be submitted to Congress every year.

Other comments at yesterday's briefing were of interest. Smith said that consideration was given to specifying funding levels for other research areas, but it was decided not to take that approach. He did say that "the physical sciences need more attention." Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) said that funding for NIH and NSF is "badly out of balance," adding, "if we can afford to double NIH, we can afford to double NSF." Rep. Constance Morella (R-MD) described the bipartisan support that exists for the foundation. Several members spoke of the NSF budget as an investment in America's economic future, a point made by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who a year ago introduced legislation to double the foundation's budget. Economic health is as important as medical health, declared Lamar Smith (R-TX).

The committee's Subcommittee on Research will hold a hearing on this bill tomorrow, and the full Science Committee will mark up the bill on May 22. With the support of the House leadership it will then go to the full House. The appropriations bill, which provides funding, is moving on a separate track.

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

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