One of the most important hearings for the National Science Foundation
was held yesterday by the Senate, VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies
Appropriations Subcommittee. The hearing produced both good news and
The good news: Subcommittee Chairman Christopher "Kit" Bond
(R-MO) and Ranking Minority Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), are united
in their support for the NSF. Both believe that the foundation and its
programs are essential for the nation's security and economic prosperity.
Both expressed deep disappointment in the Bush Administration's 3% requested
increase for NSF. Bond and Mikulski each said that they wanted to increase
the foundation's budget for next year.
The bad news: there is very little money. Bond's words neatly summarize
the situation: "OMB's budget request for NSF is disappointing
given the scientific, economic, and educational importance of its programs.
However, with major funding shortfalls throughout the VA-HUD account,
it is going to be a major and perhaps an impossible challenge to find
additional funds for NSF for FY 2005. I am committed to NSF, but this
year's budget is the most difficult I have seen in years. I want to
work with the Administration, but we need to find ways to increase NSF's
budget as we move forward, if not this year, next year."
Bond and Mikulski have long shared common views regarding NSF, and
work well together. Indicative of their working relationship was how
Mikulski initially chaired the hearing while Bond was at another important
hearing an example of bipartisanship that is rarely seen today on Capitol
Hill. Mikulski cited the NSF authorization bill that President Bush
signed a little over a year ago, comparing the authorized level of $7.3
billion with the President's request of $5.7 billion, a $1.7 billion
shortfall. She, like Bond, is not only disappointed with the request,
but with some of its components.
Both senators have expressed much support for NSF's education programs,
and each criticized the Administration's proposal to phase out NSF's
Math-Science Partnership Program. This plan seems doomed, as key members
of the House Science Committee also expressed opposition to this proposal.
Bond and Mikulski heavily criticized proposed Administration funding
reductions to minority programs, informal science education, undergraduate,
and tech talent programs. The chairman was troubled by an 11% proposed
cut to the EPSCoR program that targets underserved states. Both senators
used words like "troubled," "disappointed," "disagree,"
and "wrong," when describing the Administration's NSF request,
and their reaction to it.
The promise of nanotechnology was discussed by both senators, although
they worry that public fears could derail it as has occurred with genetically
modified foods. Mikulski urged that NSF "engage with the critics,"
listen to their fears, and then "meet concerns head on" with
a public education campaign.
Bond told the Administration witnesses, OSTP Director John Marburger,
NSF Acting Director Arden Bement (who was serving his fourth day in
this position), and National Science Board Chairman Warren Washington
that he is still troubled by the foundation's large facility project
prioritization process. "NSF must have a priority-setting process
that is credible, fair, rational and transparent. Until then, it will
be difficult for me to support any new MREFC [Major Research Equipment
and Facilities Construction] proposals." Bond, and Senator Tim
Johnson (D-SD) asked about the status of the proposed Homestake Mine
underground laboratory. NSF will hold a meeting on this proposal in
March. The witnesses assured the senators that the foundation was following
its traditional peer review approach to this proposal and would keep
the subcommittee informed about any developments, an answer that appeared
to be satisfactory to the senators.
The House VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee
will be holding its NSF hearing in about a month. Those appropriators
are unlikely to have any more money to work with than their Senate counterparts.
For those supporting a larger increase than the 3% that the Administration
has proposed, Senator Mikulski's words at yesterday's hearing are worth
remembering: "Senator Bond and I are committed to doubling NSF's
budget. It's bipartisan and bicameral. But we cannot do it alone."