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FYI Number 61: May 17, 2002

Senate Appropriators Criticize NSF Budget Request

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee criticized the Bush Administration's FY 2003 request for the National Science Foundation at a hearing last Wednesday. Both Subcommittee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Minority Member Christopher Bond (R-MO) affirmed their commitment to doubling the foundation's budget, and declared their intention to increase the agency's FY 2003 budget.

"I find this really disturbing," said Mikulski about the request, explaining that after allowing for program transfers the actual increase is only 3% over the current year. "I will reiterate that Senator Bond and I want to double this budget," she stated. Mikulski was not enthusiastic about the Administration's plan to transfer NOAA, EPA, and USGS programs to NSF, saying, "I don't believe the merger of these programs is justified."

Bond seemed even more critical, telling NSF Director Rita Colwell, National Science Board Chair Warren Washington, and OSTP Director Jack Marburger that "I'm disappointed that the Administration has not demonstrated the same level of support for NSF as we have." Bond and Mikulski are worried about the budget for research in the core disciplines, both of them mentioning physics several times. They are also concerned about deficiencies in the future S&T workforce.

The foundation's management of large research facilities was discussed several times during the hearing. Bond, citing a new report by the NSF Inspector General, told the witnesses that his enthusiasm for the foundation is tested when hearing about what Bond called cost overruns. He warned that other agencies in similar circumstances have been penalized by having their budgets reduced. During his remarks, Bond cited the foundation's participation in the construction of LHC detectors.

Bond was clearly concerned about previous actions related to the proposed underground laboratory at the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota. "I fear the peer process is in danger," he remarked. "It could be a great big black hole in the ground," he said, urging NSF to carefully review the proposal, emphasizing that he would as well.

Senator Tim Johnson (D) of South Dakota also sits on the subcommittee. Johnson began by telling his colleagues that South Dakota ranks 52nd in the United States in the allocation of federal S&T dollars, behind Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. He assured his colleagues that the South Dakota congressional delegation did not plan to intervene in the review process. Referring to funding and indemnification legislation passed late last year, Johnson argued that intervention was appropriate to prevent the mine from flooding to "allow us to preserve it as an option."

Mikulski then returned to the Administration's plan to transfer programs to NSF from USGS, NOAA, and EPA. "What's broken that we are trying to fix?" she asked the witnesses about the Sea Grant Program. "The appropriators strongly object to the transfers of these programs," she declared. After noting the foundation's lower management costs, Colwell told Mikulski, "I would have to say, this is not my highest priority."

Mikulski next turned her attention to the budget for core research programs, asking Colwell why some of the requests were down. Colwell explained that the initiatives contained funding for core research, and using physics as an example, said that if such initiative funding was included the FY 2003 physics budget "is more like level funding." (The Physics Subactivity budget request is down 1.3%.) "I'm ready to fund the core," Mikulski said.

Bond picked up on this same theme, citing a National Academy report that found, for example, physics funding had declined 24.6% in real dollars between 1993 and 1999 (see FYI #115). Marburger, while declaring that the "balance issue" is important, said that he did not believe in an arbitrary doubling or tripling of budgets. Bond replied that he and Mikulski are for just such a doubling. "In subsequent years you will see us address the balance issue," Marburger responded. Marburger told Mikulski that NIH is quite supportive of the physical sciences; Bond retorted that most of this money is for applied, not basic, research. Bond pressed, asking Marburger if there was not an imbalance in funding between the life and physical sciences. Marburger replied that the funding allocation was intentional. To which Bond, somewhat exacerbated, threw up his hands and said, "I give up, Madame Chair."

The discussion moved to other topics, including the attraction of undergraduates to the sciences, agency management reform, the location of the proposed underground laboratory in New Mexico, the potential of nanotechnology, funding for the physical sciences, and priority setting for major facilities. Marburger repeated his opposition to the doubling of S&T budgets, saying that this strategy lacked specificity and prioritization. He called instead for an "intelligent approach" to budget setting that identifies priorities. Bond, who had assumed the chair's position, said that he thought the priority setting process set forth in H.R. 4664 was a "good idea" that would make the facility process more understandable to the science community.

After closing words, Bond called this hearing, lasting less than two hours, to a close. In those two hours appropriators on both sides of the aisle made clear that they have real differences with the Bush Administration's position on what the budget should be for the National Science Foundation in Fiscal Year 2003.

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

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