Last week's hearing by the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee revealed
considerable Member support for the National Science Foundation, but
also misgivings about some of the research sponsored by the agency.
The May 2 hearing was chaired by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX)
and featured NSF Director Arden Bement, Jr.; National Science Board
Chairman Warren Washington; AAAS CEO Alan Leshner; and University of
South Carolina Professor Jerome Odom. Hutchison opened the hearing by
saying that American science and engineering is entering a period of
rejuvenation, and highlighted the importance of the NAS "Rising
Above the Gathering Storm" report. She reaffirmed her support for
the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) and the Senate PACE legislation.
Hutchison praised what she characterized as the foundation's focus on
"hard science," engineering, technology, and innovation, and
spoke of her interest in ensuring that NSF maintain this focus.
Also attending this hearing was Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK). Stevens said he was "quite
moved" by the NAS report, and described his concerns about competition
from India and China and resulting job losses. The chairman discussed
his intention for the Senate to meet the recommended NAS report goals.
"We have to light a fire," he said, noting seeming American
complacency about its S&T position in the world.
Hutchison's questions at this hearing largely revolved around the research
supported by the foundation's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and
Economic Sciences. According to its FY 2007 budget submission, "SBE
is a principal source of federal support for fundamental research on
human cognition, behavior, social structures, and social interaction,
as well as for research on the intellectual and social contexts that
govern the development and use of science and technology. Overall, SBE
accounts for about half of federal support for basic research in the
social sciences at U.S. academic institutions (reported by all federal
agencies for FY 2003). In some fields, including anthropology, archaeology,
political science, linguistics, non-medical sociology, and the social
aspects of psychology, SBE is the predominant or exclusive source of
federal basic research support." SBE's FY 2007 budget request
is $213.8 million; about 3.6% of the total NSF request of $6,020.2 million.
While saying that they were interesting research topics, Hutchison
asked, if in light of the foundation's critical role in the American
Competitiveness Initiative, SBE studies on voter behavior, presidential
veto threats, and international issues were the best use of NSF resources,
and wanted to know if a reassessment of the agency's mission was in
order. Bement responded by explaining that some of the directorate's
research had "very high economic returns for the nation,"
and that the foundation has a broad mission of supporting all fields
of science. He explained that a grant title often does not fully explain
its research. Hutchison repeated her assertion that the SBE research
was interesting, but that it was not part of the objective to double
"hard science" funding, calling NSF the engine that will drive
Stevens asked NSB Chairman Washington about the poor performance of
American high school seniors on international assessment tests. Washington
agreed that "we aren't doing a good job," but cautioned that
there was no single answer to boosting U.S. performance. Senator Bill
Nelson (D-FL), after describing his concerns about China and India's
recent S&T advances, asked why total NSF funding in real dollars
for the Education and Human Resources Directorate was 20% less than
what it was in 2004 (as noted in Leshner's testimony.) The foundation
requested a 2.5% increase for EHR in FY 2007. Bement replied that not
all of the agency's education programs were confined to EHR, citing
educational components in programs supported by the Research and Related
Senator John Sununu (R-NH) also questioned NSF's support of research
in areas such as neuroscience, psychology, and mental health. That is
the NIH mission, he said, also citing NASA and USDA research programs
that appear to overlap with NSF. Sununu also wanted to know why NSF
is involved in K-12 science education programs, saying that was the
mission of the Department of Education. He said it was "very difficult
to feel comfortable and confident" with some aspects of NSF's mission.
Sununu was not persuaded that a reason for supporting NSF research is
the creation of new jobs, contending that was the purpose of venture
capitalists. Sununu reaffirmed his support for the doubling of NSF funding
over ten years, but clearly believes it should be targeted.
Hutchison then repeated that the U.S. was on the verge of a major initiative,
and wants NSF "to be "meticulous on focusing on that initiative."
When she asked Bement if he will keep the foundation's focus on physical
sciences and engineering, he replied that he would. After asking several
questions about coordination of NSF and NASA research, Hutchison told
Bement that the foundation has a great reputation for supporting highly
respected research, was critical to the training of the next generation
of scientists, and should not dissipate or waste its resources. Hutchison
said the objective of this hearing was to ensure that the NSF continues
to do what it does best.
Leshner and Odom then took the witness table. In his prepared testimony,
Leshner said "AAAS recognizes, as does the Administration in
its budget proposal for NSF, the importance of a broad, balanced portfolio
of R&D investments. The need for strong support across all scientific
fields comes both from the increasing interdependence of physical, biological,
behavioral, and social sciences, and from the importance of all these
fields to innovation and to the improvement of the economy, health and
quality of life of all Americans." While appreciative of the
requested increases, he said even greater funding was justified since
NSF cannot fund many of the proposals that it receives. When asked by
Hutchison if NSF's research portfolio is balanced, Leshner replied that
support should be given across the entire spectrum, as critical questions
facing Americans are increasingly seen as multidisciplinary in nature.
Hutchison did not seem to be convinced, and when Odom spoke of the importance
of societal factors in advancing fields such as nanotechnology, Hutchison
said "I respectfully disagree," again voicing her concerns
that such research would crowd out funding for physical sciences and
engineering research. Hutchinson, who also sits on the Appropriations
Committee (as does Stevens) concluded by saying that she wants the foundation
to be a "lean, mean, fighting machine" to advance the goals
of the ACI, and wants to ensure that "we remain on target."