Last week's approval by the House Appropriations Committee of the FY
2005 VA, HUD and Independent Agencies Appropriations Bill is only the
second time in about the last decade when a cut was recommended in the
budget for the National Science Foundation. Under this bill, the foundation's
budget would be reduced by 2% or $111 million in the next fiscal year.
It had been predicted that this was going to be a difficult year for
the appropriators, and the proposed cut in NSF funding was not completely
surprising. Ironically, it comes at a time when support for, and interest
in, science and technology are strong on Capitol Hill. While the appropriations
committee had almost $92 billion to spend on the departments and agencies
in this bill, it was not enough. NASA funding would be cut by 1.5%.
The EPA would be reduced by 7.3%. The Department of Housing and Urban
Development would receive essentially flat funding. While the Veterans
Administration received an increase of $1.9 billion for medical services,
veterans' groups had calculated that $3.0 billion in additional funding
Looking back at previous issues of FYI through 1996, there appears
to be only one time when appropriators recommended a cut in NSF funding.
In 1999, House appropriators included a 0.7% reduction in the NSF's
budget. Rep. James Walsh (R-NY) was also then the chairman of the VA,
HUD appropriations subcommittee, and his words in 1999 would fit well
today: "We have reduced funding for the National Science Foundation
by over $200 million. That is the last thing that I wanted to do in
this bill but, again, the balance that we had to strike was very, very
fragile, very, very difficult. We literally are borrowing from Peter
to pay Paul here." During House floor debate on that bill in
September 1999, Walsh assured Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) that the subcommittee
knew the plight it had placed the foundation in, and that the subcommittee
would try to provide additional funds. Walsh told Ehlers, however, that
"I cannot make any ironclad assurances." The Senate later
recommended an increase of 7% for NSF. The final conference figure was
an increase of 6.5%. "I can't believe it, I just can't believe
it," were Senator Barbara Mikulski's (D-MD) words about this positive
The good outcome in 1999 was due to the appropriators' diligence in
locating unused housing funds and by using an accounting technique known
as advanced funding. Then-director of the National Science Foundation,
Rita Colwell, explained that the appropriators had "demonstrated
extraordinary leadership and a clear understanding of the importance
of investing in science and engineering." Colwell said that the
support of major figures in both the House and Senate was instrumental
in securing the increase. Also important was the role that then-director
of the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew, played.
While the situation this year has parallels to that in 1999, there
are differences. The United States is actively engaged in a war this
year, and the economy is different. However, this year the control of
the White House and Senate and House of Representatives rests in one
party, which should theoretically make it easier to craft a strategy.
Then, as now, the active support that constituents demonstrate for the
National Science Foundation will play a decisive role in shaping the
budget in the new fiscal year.