"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
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.