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FYI Number 60: May 15, 2002

House Science Subcommittee Hearing on NSF Doubling Bill

Last week's House Subcommittee on Research hearing on H.R. 4664 was very positive. All three witnesses expressed considerable support for this legislation authorizing 15% increases in the National Science Foundation's budget in each of the next three years. At the conclusion of the hearing, subcommittee members approved the bill and sent it to the full House Science Committee, which will mark up the bill next week

In opening remarks, subcommittee chairman Nick Smith (R-MI), the bill's author, explained that part of the reasoning behind the legislation was the subcommittee's concern that NSF "may be rejecting too many of the grant applications that were coming in" because of financial constraints. Increasing the foundation's budget would allow it to increase the number of grants, their size, and duration. A larger budget would also reduce the backlog of research facilities' upgrades. Smith repeated a point made at a previous briefing that funding for physical sciences research had lagged, and he wanted the NSF to do more than to just continue the current distribution of funds. Finally, he stated that the bill would "minimize political decisions" in the appropriation of facilities funding.

University of Maryland President C.D. Mote described financial constraints facing principal investigators hiring students to perform research. Of even greater concern to Mote were looming scientific manpower shortages. "Your authorization bill will send a strong signal to the appropriators, the rest of the Congress, and the Administration that support for NSF is strong, it is bipartisan, and it is grounded in sound arguments," he told the subcommittee.

Tufts University Engineering Dean Ioannis Miaoulis testified that "our nation has an unbalanced R&D portfolio," adding, "underfunding the physical and engineering sciences will in the long run have a detrimental effect on the life sciences." He later said, "the proposed legislation will enable NSF to fund more great ideas at a higher funding level and duration. The Nation's creative minds should spend more time focusing on their research and less time trying to get funding."

The third witness to testify was MIT Professor Jerome Friedman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and past president of the American Physical Society. Friedman also expressed support for H.R. 4664, and devoted most of his testimony to major research equipment and facilities construction. Commenting on NSF's decision-making process for the construction and operation of major facilities, Friedman said, "NSF currently does not provide the science community or Congress with a prioritized list of approved projects. The lack of transparency has prevented orderly planning by the research community. As a result, science has suffered and international research partners have been left dangling." Friedman cited the lack of an NSF funding request for the Rare Symmetry Violating Process project as an example. He recommended a process similar to that outlined in the legislation.

Some interesting points were made in the Q&A session that followed. Chairman Smith predicted that "competition for money is going to become much more aggressive" following last September's attack, and said that performance and results are going to become important. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL), a sponsor of the bill and vocal supporter of DOE, cautioned that "if you increase it [funding] in one place, you take it away from another place." Friedman described the large decline in students enrolled in physics since the 1960s, noted the reduction in physics research funding, and said that many students "felt that they had no future in it." Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN), who is also a member of the House Budget Committee, outlined the difficult fiscal challenges facing the Congress, saying that it would be unable to do as much as it would like to do. Congress reflects the will of the people, he said, and the people want homeland security, national security, prescription drug coverage, and lower taxes.

Following further discussion the subcommittee moved to mark up the bill. The only change was to rename H.R. 4664 as the "Investing in America's Future Act." The full committee will take up the bill next week.

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

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