The reauthorization of NSF was the topic of the first two hearings
by the new Research and Science Education Subcommittee of the House
Committee on Science and Technology. The issues identified as a priority
by Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) included NSF's role in science education;
the balance of interdisciplinary and disciplinary research; ways to
nurture young researchers; and how to get the most out of NSF's partnerships
with industry. Testifying at the first hearing were NSF Director Arden
Bement and National Science Board Chairman Steven Beering. Witnesses
at the second hearing included representatives of universities, community
colleges, government-industry consortia, and professional societies.
Subcommittee Ranking Minority Member Vern Ehlers (R-MI) commented that
the diversity of constituents who work with NSF demonstrated "the
broad impact of this agency."
The subcommittee was very concerned, Baird said, about the slow growth
or cuts to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education
programs at NSF. Noting that the FY 2008 request for NSF's Education
and Human Resources (EHR) Directorate "remains approximately 10
percent below" the FY 2004 level, Beering highlighted the National
Science Board's belief that NSF has the mandate, experience and relationships
necessary to play a central role in preparing U.S. citizens to remain
globally competitive. "The Board, therefore, strongly urges that
NSF education programs be sustained and expanded over the long term
as an essential component of a coordinated Federal effort to promote
national excellence in STEM education," he said in his testimony.
Although Bement's prepared statement did not mention education, during
questioning he stated that STEM education "was one of the highest
priorities, if not the highest.... I can't think of a more important
national need at present." Asked by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) whether
NSF was being "squeezed out of K-12 education," Bement replied
that the situation was "turning around." Some of the NSF education
programs were not "plussed up" in the FY 2008 request, he
said, because they were still undergoing evaluation, but he expected
that NSF would seek increases to those programs in future budget cycles.
Bement added that NSF's education efforts should continue to be focused
on R&D into better methods, materials, and teacher training. "If
we are asked to take on an implementation role," he said, it would
be "more than we could possibly handle." The private-sector
witnesses supported a strong NSF role in science education. "We
must set aside any notion that NSF's education programs are either subservient
to or stand in competition with its research programs," testified
Catherine Hunt, President of the American Chemical Society; "I
cannot emphasize strongly enough that NSF is uniquely situated as the
agency best-suited to bridge the distance between the scientific and
On the issue of balance between disciplinary and interdisciplinary
research, Bement declared that "support for interdisciplinary research
is a priority" for NSF. The Foundation gets guidance and feedback
on the balance of its portfolio from its "many stakeholders,"
he said, including the National Science Board, Congress, the National
Academies, OSTP, other research agencies, the research community, and
the merit review process itself. "As the importance of such interdisciplinary
research continues to increase," Hunt noted, "the scientific
grant system must adapt to this new paradigm." She suggested broadening
the backgrounds of members of NSF's review panels, and encouraged NSF
to "watch the NIH experiment" of awarding grants to a small
number of co-equal principal investigators. Phyllis Wise, Provost of
the University of Washington, Seattle, voiced support for multi-agency
interdisciplinary research projects, but commented that the process
for applying to cross-agency projects is "very cumbersome and discouraging."
She suggested a uniform application process across federal agencies,
and providing additional grant money to supplement existing interdisciplinary
projects by enabling addition of a junior investigator.
Mechanisms for supporting and encouraging young researchers was a main
topic of discussion. "We need to be creative," Baird said,
and suggested a pilot program of seed grants to new investigators to
help them improve declined proposals. Bement said that NSF had numerous
ways to nurture young investigators, including the Faculty Early Career
Development program, the Presidential Early Career Awards, placing more
emphasis on unsolicited grants and frontier research, and a variety
of outreach efforts and workshops to help new researchers understand
the proposal submission process and provide feedback to those whose
proposals have been declined. The success of these efforts, he felt,
was demonstrated by the fact that while NSF's overall proposal success
rate had declined since the late 1990s, the success rate for young investigators
had remained stable at about 28 percent. It is "imperative that
we do everything that we can to help young investigators succeed,"
Wise said in her testimony. Carlos Meriles, an Assistant Professor of
Physics at the City College of New York and a current recipient of an
NSF Faculty Early Career Development grant, advocated a short-term "preliminary"
award to young faculty to enable "proof of principle" for
exceptionally creative ideas, and a twice-annual proposal schedule for
the early career development grants. Wise suggested the availability
of funding for a small number of "highly meritorious" but
unfunded first-time proposals from junior faculty.
NSF can play a significant role in providing incentives for university-industry
partnerships, Baird said, and asked how best to leverage such partnerships.
Ehlers cautioned that while industry's focus on potential research applications
was valuable, it should not be the sole driver of research design. Bement
listed a number of NSF programs that foster partnerships, including
the Small Business Innovative Research/Small Business Technology Transfer
Research, Partnerships for Innovation, and many of NSF's Centers. He
noted that while NSF accepts, and may encourage, cost-sharing arrangements,
it does not require them, because that would disadvantage many institutions
such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) and institutions
in EPSCoR states that may be unable to provide matching funds. The "most
effective partnership with industry is accomplished through training
undergraduate and graduate students who in turn enter the private sector,"
said Margaret Ford, President of the Houston Community College System
- Northeast. Both Meriles and Jeffrey Welser, Director of the Nanoelectronics
Research Initiative, advocated student internships in industry, and
Welser recommended "giving NSF the flexibility to participate in
Ehlers described the goal of the reauthorization legislation as an
attempt to improve the functioning of an agency that was already very
good. Baird voiced the subcommittee's support of the Administration's
plan for a ten-year doubling of physical sciences basic research, and
said research funding levels in the draft legislation would be "aligned
with the Administration's plans." In closing, he added that the
subcommittee, in drafting its reauthorization bill, would try to "address
some of the things brought to our attention today."