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FYI Number 31: March 3, 2003

Science Committee Gives Bush S&T Request Mixed Reactions

Republicans and Democrats on the House Science Committee have mixed reactions to the Bush Administration's FY 2004 request for science and technology. At a hearing last month, committee members both praised and criticized the administration's request, while acknowledging that the FY 2004 budget request was difficult to decipher as it was based on year-old numbers.

A joke told by committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) captured these varying sentiments: "...there's much to cause distress as well - like the virtual elimination of the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) and the Manufacturing Extension Program (MEP), and flat funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. I may have said this last year as well, but the concern expressed for the physical sciences in the budget reminds me a little bit of the old joke about the will that said, 'To Joe, who I said I would mention in my will, "Hello, Joe.'" Sympathy won't fund labs." Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) had similar concerns. While telling OSTP Director John Marburger that "R&D fares fairly well in a difficult budget year," he lamented the budget for DOE's Office of Science. Hall spoke of the critical relationship between advances in the physical and life sciences.

"Mr. Chairman, this is a good budget for science," Marburger testified. He singled out the administration's support for basic research and the physical sciences (see FYI #28), and said, "priorities have been established." That message of priority- setting was also in the testimony of Commerce Deputy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who said that the administration's decision to terminate the Advanced Technology Program and to significantly reduce funding for the Manufacturing Extension Program was based on the need to increase the budget for other NIST programs. He acknowledged that this decision would not be universally popular. NSF Director Rita Colwell testified that "this [NSF] budget leaves no doubt that the President embraces NSF's vision and value." In his testimony, Under Secretary of Energy Robert Card spoke highly of fusion's potential, saying "it could be the dominant new energy source for the end of this century and beyond," and spoke of the "remarkable promise of nanotechnology."

Despite the obvious good will that committee members had for the administration's witnesses, they also had some hard questions. At the time of the hearing, the omnibus appropriations bill had not yet been completed, leaving the committee without hard numbers for the current year's budget by which to compare the FY 2004 request. Boehlert asked Marburger how the NSF request should be interpreted: was it the 9% increase the administration claimed, or nearer to 3% when compared against the almost-completed omnibus bill, or neither? "That's an important question to ask," Marburger said, referring to request as "the starting point." The S&T request, Marburger continued, provides important signals about changes in the administration's priorities, and was the result of considerable thinking and discussion.

Boehlert asked about the science and technology components of the new Department of Homeland Security. The committee is dissatisfied with the administration's lack of response about what the lab changes would entail. Marburger described a "virtual lab" drawing from the other national labs. DOE Under Secretary Card added that "we don't see a very big impact of this change."

Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) was clear in his assessment: "I'm disappointed in the increase for NSF," citing the level specified in the recently-enacted NSF authorization law. He calculated that the administration's request was 14% below the FY 2004 authorization. Ehlers described the "extreme imbalance" in funding between NIH and other S&T agencies, and added, "it's my goal to redress that imbalance." Ehlers was wary of the administration's decision to terminate the ATP program, and greatly reduce MEP funding. He told Bodman that the Senate would put this money back in the NIST appropriations bill, and would do so by taking money "right out of the hide" of the research and facilities budgets.

In response to a question about the size of the NSF request, Colwell replied the foundation's request was "a notable increase," as it was more than twice the overall government-wide discretionary target level. Colwell also spoke of proposed increases for the physical sciences. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) told the witnesses that she was "extremely disappointed in the overall budget for the Office of Science," explaining that it was the largest, and sometimes only, supporter of research in various physical science fields. She cited her own bill, H.R. 34 that would authorize a 60% increase in the office's budget over 4 years, and said of the administration's request that it "really is flat funding."

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) was also critical of the request for basic research, which was, he said, vital to a strong economy and national security. How, Bartlett asked Marburger, should the public be better educated about the importance of basic research. Marburger replied that the House Science Committee had made an important contribution to this process, and referring to the administration's request, said that it demonstrated a commitment to basic research. Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) seemed unpersuaded, expressing disappointment with the NSF request. Smith also wanted a fuller explanation of the foundation's prioritization rationale for major research equipment. The hearing concluded with Ehlers telling Card that more money was needed for the DOE Office of Science, while acknowledging that there was not much expressed support for its programs throughout the nation.

This first hearing marks the shift in the focus of the budget process from the White House to the Capitol. In coming months, Members of Congress will confront difficult decisions about whether to accept the Bush Administration's S&T budget recommendations. These decisions will be made against a backdrop of a possible war, concerns about homeland security, an uncertain national economy, and a mounting budget deficit. The decisions that Congress makes about science and technology spending will be greatly influenced by constituent input. Rep. Ehlers' comments about the DOE Office of Science are accurate, and with the exception of biomedical research, his comments apply to most federally-sponsored research.

Constituents play an important part in this process. Visit the AIP Science Policy web site at http://www.aip.org/gov for guidance on how to make the case for strong funding for the physical sciences. Here you will find copies of AIP's Physics Success Stories and tips on communicating with your Members of Congress. We invite you to contact us if we can be of any assistance.

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

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