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FYI Number 32: March 16, 2007

Key NSF Budget Hearings Completed

House and Senate appropriators have completed key hearings on the FY 2008 National Science Foundation budget request. Appropriators on both sides of Capitol Hill were supportive of NSF and its budget request.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies started its consideration of the FY 2008 NSF budget request with an insightful dialogue between subcommittee members and National Science Board Chairman Steven Beering. At this February 28 hearing, subcommittee members laid the foundation for what would be the focus of an afternoon session and a hearing the following day with NSF Director Arden Bement. Subcommittee chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV) quickly brought up a concern that subcommittee members raised repeatedly during both days of hearings, Mollohan telling Beering that “education was a stepchild in this request.” Ranking subcommittee member Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) expressed concern about the next generation of science teachers, while Adam Schiff (D-CA) criticized the 19 percent cut there had been in inflation-adjusted dollars for the Education and Human Resources budget since 2004. Michael Honda (D-CA) (and later in the hearing, Mollohan) asked Beering about a new NSF report on transformational research, which lead into a longer discussion about whether the foundation was risk-adverse in awarding grants. Mollohan later raised questions about varying budget increases for different disciplines, citing as an example the smaller requested FY 2008 percentage increase for biology. Beering would not comment about specific funding allocations, replying more generally that it “would be useful to balance these accounts.” Mollohan asked about the higher cost estimate for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) and the impact that shifting money into ALMA’s budget will have on the National Ecological Observatory Network and the Ocean Observatories Initiative; Beering replied that this would be discussed at the next meeting of the National Science Board. There was discussion about the percentage of grants the NSF awarded and the size of research grants, with all agreeing that the numbers were not high enough.

After a break for lunch, the subcommittee held a second hearing with Norman Augustine and AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan Leshner to discuss U.S. competitiveness and federal R&D policy. Augustine gave Congress high marks for its S&T actions in recent months, but warned that the nation “still has a long way to go.” Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) told the witnesses that he was “extremely concerned” about the NASA FY 2008 budget request (a point raised at this and other hearings that will be reviewed in a future issue of FYI), and spoke of the great importance of the subcommittee receiving a high budget allocation for the programs under its jurisdiction. Culberson exclaimed that there were no party differences among subcommittee members over the matter of science funding, a point which was borne out in this and other hearings. At the conclusion of this 90-minute afternoon hearing Honda commented when discussing federal science funding that “we get what we pay for. . . . We set the stage ourselves.”

The subcommittee reconvened on March 1 for several hours in both the morning and afternoon to hear from NSF Director Bement. “I’m pleased to see a robust request,” Mollohan told Bement, but then added that the budget for Education and Human Resources (EHR) had “not been proportionately increased.” Bement replied that the requested budget increase reflected the fact that evaluations of EHR programs for factors such as scalability, transportability, and sustainability have not been completed. He expanded his remarks later in the hearing when Mollohan again raised this matter. Bement said that there were fragmented EHR programs that should not been continued, declaring that the foundation was “cleaning up our garden to get rid of the weeds.”

Frelinghuysen turned the discussion to the foundation’s support of transformative research (for further information on this topic see http://www.nsf.gov/news/speeches/bement/07/alb070104_texas.jsp ) Bement said that there is “a perception in the community that the foundation is risk-adverse; I don’t share that,” adding that awards are sometimes not approved for proposals because they do not entail enough risk.

Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) asked Bement if the Administration’s FY 2008 request would keep the NSF on track to double its budget within ten years. Bement replied that it would, and when asked, said that the additional funding would be used for investment at the research frontier in areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technologies. During this exchange, Rogers said that “we need to see measurable results,” later adding, “I need to have some specific targets we are shooting for.” Culberson, telling Bement that he was “among friends here,” said he agreed with Rogers on the need for specific goals.

Other topics were raised with Bement, such cybersecurity and coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, competition from nations such as Russia and China, the Math and Science Partnerships, proposal success rates, future workforce needs, polar icebreaking ships, EPSCoR, and new facilities. Mollohan ended the two days of hearings by saying the “committee wants to support” the National Science Foundation, and that he intends to complete his appropriations bill by July 4.

A week later, Bement was on the other side of Capitol Hill for a much briefer hearing of the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee. Bement shared the witness table with NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr. “We are facing a very tight budget, with many competing demands,” said subcommittee chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD.) Both Mikulski and Ranking Republican Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) questioned why NOAA and NASA were not part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, Shelby also saying in his opening remarks that federal research dollars should be more widely distributed among universities. Much of the talk at this hearing revolved around NOAA issues, such as the status of earth observing satellites and early warning systems. Mikulski discussed accountability several times, citing overruns for satellite systems, and in case of NSF, the Alaskan research vessel and ALMA. Mikulski warned that without management changes the research community must be warned there “will have to be a moratorium on projects.” “The [appropriations] committee is going to be very stern on accountability” she added.

There are two messages from these subcommittee hearings. The first is that there is deep, uniform, and bipartisan support for the National Science Foundation, and for science. Subcommittee members are convinced that research, such as that supported by NSF, is critical to the nation’s future. The second message is also clear as stressed by Mikulski: “we’ve got a lot here that we are trying to juggle.”

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

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