Promising Hearing for NSF

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Publication date: 
25 May 2001

Last week's hearing by the House VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on the National Science Foundation budget request could not have gone any better. Both Republican and Democratic members of the subcommittee were critical of the Bush Administration's 1.3% requested increase in the foundation's budget for FY 2002, and said that they would do better.

Subcommittee chairman James Walsh (R-NY) did not mince words in describing the administration's request. "Wholly inadequate" was how he described the request for Research and Related Activities, saying that it sent exactly the wrong message to the research community. Walsh also criticized the Major Research Equipment request. He spoke of previous bipartisan efforts that understood and recognized the vital role that research has had in ensuring our nation's economic prosperity. Walsh informed NSF Director Rita Colwell that he had taken steps to secure a higher allocation for his subcommittee so as to provide more money for research, calling it an "absolute priority." He told Colwell that he was "cautiously optimistic we will be successful." There was, the chairman said, "a lot of consternation on this subcommittee" about the request for NSF. Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D-WV) shared Walsh's sentiments, calling the request a "missed opportunity."

As a member of the administration, Colwell's responsibility was to defend the request. She explained that the foundation's investment in people was up 13%, and said she was "very proud" of NSF's role in the administration's math and science partnership initiative. One of the most important actions the agency could take in the next budget year, she said, was raising stipends, which would boost the number of science and engineering students.

Walsh spoke about re-balancing the R&D budget, citing the requested 13.5% increase for NIH. He wondered if the foundation's biological sciences program budget should be reduced to provide more money for engineering and physical sciences. Colwell replied that the request "reflects a balance," and she would not favor such a redistribution. Walsh was also concerned about the budgetary impacts of new program initiatives on core activities. He pressed Colwell about the Major Research Equipment request, and wanted to know why money was not requested for an atmospheric research aircraft, as well as the foundation's approach toward developing the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

Next to question Colwell was Mollohan, who reminded her that "this committee makes independent decisions about the budget." He said it was "hard to understand" the administration's rationale, citing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's statement that the NSF request was a "tragic mistake." To this, National Science Board Chairman Eamon Kelly said that "We are eating our seed corn," and later recommended a doubling of a better balanced research budget. Mollohan had many questions about nanotechnology. When he asked Kelly what the "biggest opportunities" were for NSF should it get more money, Kelly spoke about S&T workforce issues, science education, the size and duration of grants, and the size of various stipends.

Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) asked the next set of questions, saying that it was going to be difficult to find a program to take the money from to augment the NSF request. He urged the foundation to be more vigorous in explaining its mission, stating that the public does not see the long-term payoff in research. "In reality, a lot of the general public doesn't know what the heck you do," Frelinghuysen told Colwell. She concurred.

At that point, Rep. David Obey (D-WI) came into the hearing room. Obey is the highest ranking Democrat on the full committee, and it was his first appearance at an NSF hearing in more than ten years. He called the Administration's request a "sad sack" budget, and a "profound warping" of the federal research portfolio, "which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works." Obey said that it was not necessary to reduce NIH's request, instead criticizing the administration's tax cut plan. Telling Colwell that he realized this request was not of her making, Obey told her that she should not spend much time defending it, because "this request is a dead dog." To which Walsh added, "I don't think there is a lot of disagreement here."

Rep. Bud Cramer (D-AL) asked about the flat funding of community college programs in the budget. Joseph Knollenberg (R-MI) called Obey's tax cut remark "off the page," and wanted to know how NSF determines the impact of its programs. He asked about any duplication of effort with Department of Education programs, and also about coordination of nanotechnology programs. Carrie Meek (D-FL) criticized the NSF request for minority programs, saying that she was "not satisfied with NSF." Seeming to demonstrate more uncertainty about NSF was Virgil Goode (Independent-VA), who asked how NSF was using its H-1B funds, and wanted assurances that all foundation scholarship money is restricted (as it is) to U.S. citizens.

Also exhibiting skepticism was Anne Northup (R-KY), a former calculus teacher, who criticized federal involvement in education. David Price (D-NC), in contrast, praised an NSF program which brings graduate students into K-12 classrooms. Price was concerned about the reduction in support for physical science core programs. Chaka Fattah's (D-PA) questions revolved around minority programs. In his final round of questions, Walsh asked about the K-12 math/science partnership program, and whether cuts had to be made elsewhere to finance it. Mollohan expressed some concern about the funding of core science programs. "We are doing all we can to protect core areas," Colwell assured him. Frelinghuysen's final questions centered on fusion, and NSF's cooperative programs with the Department of Energy.

"We look forward to making some changes," Chairman Walsh said at the conclusion of this two and one-half hour hearing. Those changes will become apparent one month from tomorrow, when Walsh and his colleagues meet on June 26 to mark up the FY 2002 VA, HUD, Independent Agencies Appropriations Bill.

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