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FYI Number 48: May 11, 2007

House Passes NSF Authorization Bill

It was almost midnight when the House took its final vote last week on H.R. 1867, the National Science Foundation Authorization Act. The vote of 399-17 to pass the bill reflected the high esteem there is for NSF on Capitol Hill. Perhaps more telling were the five hours of debate on various amendments that would have reduced the authorized growth rate for the foundation's budget, and which would have prohibited the NSF from funding specific grants.

The last NSF authorization (PL 107-368) was enacted in late 2002, and authorized a five-year doubling of the foundation's budget (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2002/128.html.) Under this law, the FY 2007 authorization is $9,839,262,000. The actual FY 2007 budget for NSF is $5,916.2 million. An inherent characteristic of all authorization bills in guiding program funding is that they generally set ceilings on appropriations, but not minimum spending levels. Authorization bills play an important role as clear statements of congressional and White House priorities, and set budget parameters and policy direction.
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H.R. 1867 was sponsored by House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) and Ranking Member Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) (and 20 additional cosponsors), who managed floor debate when the House considered the bill on May 2. As outlined in FYI #43 (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/043.html ) this bill sets authorization levels for FY 2008, 2009 and 2010 with annual increases of more than 7 percent. Baird described the bill as "one more important piece of the House leadership's innovation agenda." He told House members that input in the bill's formation was provided through two subcommittee legislative hearings, other policy hearings, conversations with foundation stakeholders, and a meeting with the NSF director and assistant directors.

Ehlers quickly established his position on anticipated amendments that would reduce the bill's authorization levels, calling it " totally absurd for anyone to think about reducing the budget of the NSF. If anything, we should increase it because the payback on our investment there is so good, so strong, that we should be increasing NSF funding, not decreasing it."

One of the first amendments was offered by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) to link NSF authorization increases to NASA appropriations. Weldon said he supported both agencies, but did not want the foundation's budget increases to come at the expense of NASA. Both agencies are funded through the same budget category. The House never voted on this amendment because it was ruled that it was not germane to the bill.

There was far more discussion about an amendment offered by Rep. John Campbell (R-CA): "None of the funds authorized under this section may be used for research related to" seven activities such as "the accuracy in the cross-cultural understanding of others' emotions" or "archives of Andean Knotted-Sting Records." Said Campbell: "What this amendment does is it says that there are certain things upon which we should not be spending money through this bill during this time of budget deficits, stealing Social Security funds, and increasing taxes." He added, "I understand that there is a process of peer review from which these studies come in the National Science Foundation, and that's all well and good. But our job here is we are the elected representatives and stewards of the taxpayers' money, not the academics in the National Science Foundation, and it is our decision whether or not we wish to spend taxpayers' funds on studies of the social relationships and reproductive strategies of Phayre's leaf monkeys or on bison hunting on the late prehistoric Great Plains. I think we should not do that. I am sure that some believe that these are very fine academic studies. That's excellent. Within the realms of academic halls, they may think a number of things are fine academic studies. That's not the question. The question before us is, do these things rise to the standard of requiring expenditures of taxpayer funds in a time of deficits, proposed tax increases and raiding Social Security funds? I think the answer is a resounding no."

Baird immediately refuted the logic of the Campbell amendment, first quoting a letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the similar position of the Association of American Universities. He then said, "the gentleman [Rep. Campbell] seems to suggest, it seems, that we here in the Congress, with a cursory evaluation of the abstracts from studies, should insert ourselves in the peer-review process. I wonder if the gentleman had looked at chemistry research or physics research in the same way, and do we really want to spend this body's time, and do you, sir, or you, sir, have the expertise to evaluate these studies? That's why we have a peer-review process. That's why we have a National Science Foundation. It is why we have a Science Foundation Board to direct us." Ehlers outlined his opposition, telling his colleagues: "you can't always judge the full proposal by the title. This was evident a few years ago when we went through exactly the same charade when discussing the National Science Foundation budget. Some of my colleagues came down to the floor to amend the NSF appropriations bill, and one offered an amendment to remove grants for the study of ATM. This person gave a magnificent speech why we should not spend money at the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy to study ATM. His argument was, let the banking industry do the research on ATMs. What he didn't know is that the proposal was not on automatic teller machines but the proposal was on studying asynchronous transfer modes, which involves the way computers talk to each other. This research led to a substantial change in the speed at which computers were able to talk to each other. This is a good example of why it is dangerous to just look at titles and make a judgment."

After considerable debate, during which Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) also rose to question the relevance of the itemized research to contemporary society, the House postponed its vote on the Campbell amendment to a series of back-to-back votes at the conclusion of the debate. The Campbell amendment failed by a vote of 195 yes to 222 no, and can be viewed at http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2007/roll289.xml

Campbell then rose to offer an amendment to reduce by 1 percent the authorization levels in the bill. Campbell stated "I, too, am someone who has sympathy for some of the things that the National Science Foundation does," but argued that the authorization levels would increase at a faster rate than would future federal revenue. Even with the proposed reductions, he contended, "These are still large annual increases, larger than most taxpayers at home are likely to see the increases in their incomes . . . ." Baird rose to counter the amendment: "if you cut investments in scientific research and scientific education, in the long run you will increase the deficit of this country, and you will decrease our national security, our national health care and our national and international competitiveness. That is why this is a mistake." He added, "This is not just a Democratic proposal or Republican proposal. I would remind the gentleman that this bill passed unanimously out of committee with bipartisan support." Ehlers picked up the argument: "It is incredible to me that we are supposed to be the brightest, most powerful Nation in the world, and yet we are losing ground compared to nations such as South Korea. If we are serious about competing with other countries, we absolutely have to keep investing our money in research, whether it's the National Science Foundation or whether it is the Department of Energy or the National Institutes of Health." This second Campbell amendment was rejected by a vote of 115 yes to 301 no. The roll call vote on reducing the authorization levels for the NSF can be viewed at http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2007/roll290.xml ; those voting "aye" voted for the 1 percent reduction.

Following consideration of this amendment, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) offered a similar amendment to reduce the bill's authorization levels by 0.5 percent. In explaining his amendment, he said: "how can we justify programmatic increases for research that are actually more than twice the rate of inflation? . . . when I go back to my constituents back at home in town hall meetings and the like, they are not seeing 7 percent increases in their wages and salaries. They are not seeing a doubling of their incomes and their family household incomes. They may be seeing that as far as their expenses are concerned." He later added: "Time after time our constituents come to our office quoting the discrepancy between authorization levels and appropriation levels. It is my hope that instead of having to disappoint them once again, that we set realistic authorization levels that may actually be realistic to the appropriation levels that come down the line. Let's be realistic, both on what we can do for our constituents and also what the appropriators may be doing with this bill later on." Baird again objected: "In 2002, 397 Members of this Congress, including 194 Members of the then-majority party Republicans, voted to double, double, the National Science Foundation. For those members of your party who plan to vote against this bill or who plan to vote for this reduction in the authorized levels for this committee, I would just suggest you well may be voting against something that you voted for just a few years ago at much higher levels and that the President signed into law. The then-majority voted to double the budget. The President signed it into law at much higher levels than what we are talking about today." This amendment was later defeated by a vote of 126 yes to 292 no; see http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2007/roll291.xml

Garrett then offered another amendment, similar to that of Campbell, to prevent three research areas from being funded. Garrett questioned the need for the research, and said that it was the responsibility of Congress to help "NSF to focus on its priority projects." This amendment failed by voice vote.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) then offered an amendment to strike a portion of the bill to authorize new one-year grants to young researchers whose proposals were not accepted to strengthen their proposals for future submission. "Are we simply saying, all right, here is more money to help you get government money?" he said, characterizing this new program as an "earmark." Joining Flake in supporting this amendment was Rep. Price, who remarked, "one of the roles of our office is to assist individuals with grant applications. So there are other resources which the Federal Government supplies for individuals who are searching to try to fill out their grant applications. We are happy to help." The House later voted down this amendment by 128 yes to 290 no; see http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2007/roll292.xml

Later in the evening, Price offered another amendment which would require funding cuts (offsets) for the authorization increases in the bill. "This is the amendment that allows us as a Congress to say, yes, indeed we believe that fiscal responsibility is important." Baird responded: "The amendment by the gentleman from Georgia has been offered before. It has been defeated before on other bills. I would urge its defeat." House members followed Baird's request, defeating this amendment by a vote of 183 yes to 235 no; see http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2007/roll294.xml

Other amendments were offered and accepted during the consideration of the bill, including one on a global warming education program, a science communication initiative in the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, another to state the sense of the Congress on the NSF and Department of Education Mathematics and Science Partnership programs (see forthcoming FYI), and to establish a new grant program at Hispanic-serving institutions

The final vote was on passage of the bill. At 11:44 p.m., the clerk announced that H.R. 1867 had passed the House by a vote of 399 yes to 17 no; see http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2007/roll295.xml

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

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