FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

House Hearings Provide Insight on Appropriators’ Thinking

Richard M. Jones
Number 40 - April 6, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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When Congress returns from its spring recess in two weeks, appropriators will be starting an intensive round of hearings with department and agency heads and the subsequent drafting of FY 2010 funding bills. One of the key House appropriations subcommittees for science funding is chaired by Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) as the Ranking Member. Their Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science plays a major role in determining the budgets for the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Both Mollohan and Wolf have been very supportive of increased science funding, as are the other members of this subcommittee.

This appropriations subcommittee takes an interesting approach to S&T funding by holding a series of hearings early in the budget cycle that are less traditional hearings, and more wide-ranging discussions between witnesses and the members. Mollohan and Wolf held a series of these hearings in March.

This FYI is a compilation of many of the appropriators’ statements or questions providing insight into their current thinking about science funding. The first hearing on the US science enterprise featured National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone. Appearing at the second hearing on NASA and NSF were former NASA Associate Administrator Lennard Fisk and the Associate Executive Director of the American Mathematical Society, Samuel Rankin. Norman Augustine, chairman of the committee responsible for the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report appeared at the third hearing that focused on the S&T position of the US in the three years since the report’s release.

Subcommittee Chairman Mollohan:

Mollohan described the subcommittee’s important, and difficult, responsibility to strike the right balance in the investment of tax dollars in competing government programs, within agencies, between different fields, and between research and education. This balance should be sustainable politically and practically, as boom-bust cycles in funding and employment damage research. Mollohan asked if there should be an “endpoint” in the growth of science budgets. He later asked if there are some types of research that should be emphasized over others, and if there were “essential facilities’ investments” that Congress should make. Mollohan asked if science agencies such as NASA (particularly its science program) and NOAA also should receive significant budget increases, and was especially interested in NOAA’s climate change programs.

Mollohan was also interested in knowing the likely impacts of the $3 billion given to NSF in the economic stimulus bill, and if conservatism is “a defining characteristic of the peer review process.” He also asked whether it was appropriate for the DOE Office of Science to fund basic research since that is the focus of NSF’s mission.

The chairman asked a series of questions about the status of space biology and space physical sciences, and the consequences that fluctuating funding has on researchers. In another exchange, Mollohan stated that NASA’s aeronautics program “has been neglected,” adding “everybody has been concerned about that.” At another point, Mollohan asked if it is “a good thing or bad thing” that science has “become very much an international collaborative process,” and if there were facilities or technologies that are critical to keep in the United States. Mollohan was also interested in identifying and retaining students to go into science

Perhaps one of the chairman’s most telling statements was when he said “we very much want to reach the balance point. We don’t want to create a baseline and a commitment to a percentage increase that we can’t sustain.”

Ranking Member Wolf:

Wolf asked about the size of the US science and technology workforce as it compared to other nations, how best to attract and retain students in these fields, and how the US was doing in science, specifically mentioning physics Wolf expressed pessimism that science would be “squeezed” by rising entitlement costs, and was critical of both political parties for not finding a way to work together to solve this problem. He called for people like Cicerone and Augustine to be “very bold to speak out” about the challenges confronting America. Wolf also wanted to know how serious the civilian and defense science competition was from China, at one point mentioning aeronautics. An important remark: “I have always supported the sciences; I think its job creation.”

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX):

Culberson, a self-described fiscal conservative, is a strong supporter of science, particularly the NSF and NASA. He described how “terribly destructive” it was for the foundation’s funding to be “bouncing around from year to year.” He was interested in knowing how Congress could make NSF’s budget more stable, predictable, and increasing at a steady rate. Doing so, he said, would give scientists more assurance about their grants. Culberson called for “an independent board of scientists” to recommend funding levels for NSF and NASA science. Their recommendations would be independent of (any) president’s budget, and would “get politics out of the way and let the peer-reviewed independent grant process drive the work.” “I frankly don’t trust OMB; I don’t care who is the president” Culberson exclaimed, later saying he wanted to “take OMB out of the loop when it comes to making funding recommendations” for NSF and NASA science programs. He told Mollohan he is interested in working on legislation to establish such a panel of scientists, and wants to “wall off” the budgets of NSF, NIH, NASA, and NIST to protect them from rising costs for social programs.

At the NASA hearing Culberson charged that the Bush Administration “did not adequately fund the goals they set for NASA.” He spoke of “unrealistic cost estimates on a lot of major [NASA] flagship missions” and wanted to know what was being done to provide more realistic cost projects to Congress. Culberson discussed the astronomical decadal survey process, and said “we are committed to making sure that the decadal survey missions get flown.”

Culberson recommended that the $3 billion provided to NSF in the stimulus bill be used to permanently increase its budget baseline. Repeating an earlier theme, he said this would prevent the foundation’s budget from rapid shifts that undermine predictability and stability. “The success of America is contingent on the success of the National Science Foundation,” he said.

Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA):

Honda expressed interest in finding ways for NOAA, NASA, and other science agencies to work together to provide coordinated information in areas such as global warming. He also asked about improving student achievement in science, and whether it was possible to teach innovation. Honda also asked how to define “equity” in the context of public education. He also wanted to know about the feasibility of using outside experts to provide advise on priority-setting. Honda also inquired about US immigration policy as it relates to economic competitiveness.

Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL):

Bonner, the newest member of the subcommittee, expressed interest in attracting more students into science.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL):

Aderholt asked if reducing the high cost of launching space payloads would benefit NASA’s science programs.

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY):

Serrano was interested in how science agencies could be repositioned to remain “relevant to everyday Americans” and how space science related to climate change and green technology. He also asked about how to encourage greater diversity in those students interested in science.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA):

Schiff spoke of two “preeminent” scientific questions that “everybody has”-- “what can science do to improve my health and the health of my family?” and “are we alone?” He also asked if the sequencing for outer planet flagship missions had been set for Europa to be followed by Titan.

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