"Dismal" and "inadequate" were some of the terms used by members of the House VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee as they reviewed NSF's FY 2004 budget request on April 10. After Congress passed legislation last year authorizing the doubling of the foundation's budget over five years, the subcommittee was disappointed that the $5.5 billion requested by the President for FY 2004 would not keep NSF on track toward that goal. The doubling legislation, and the 10.4 percent funding increase Congress provided for NSF in FY 2003, demonstrate "that our enthusiasm was more than just rhetoric," declared Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D-WV). Noting that President Bush had signed the doubling legislation, Chairman James Walsh (R-NY) asked, "Did he really mean it?"
Both praised the foundation's work and acknowledged the importance of basic research. One of the areas where Congress is in "bicameral, bipartisan" agreement, Walsh said, is that physical sciences funding, especially at NSF, "needs to grow." To NSF Director Rita Colwell, he said, "I hope you'll help us navigate the funding dilemma we're in."
Colwell said she was grateful for the "record increases" Congress has provided for the foundation. The budget request, she said, "leaves no doubt that the President embraces" the value of NSF. She defended the FY 2004 request, which is an increase of 3.2 percent over the final FY 2003 level, by pointing out that Congress had not completed the FY 2003 appropriations bills when the FY 2004 budget was proposed. She remarked that the request represented a 9.0 percent increase over the previous year's request, and added that it places "a major emphasis" on physical and mathematical sciences. It is of note that she viewed the substantial increase for the current fiscal year "as an early downpayment" for FY 2004.
One of Colwell's goals is to increase the average research grant size and duration to $250,000 per year for five years, as the "most efficient way" of maintaining the nation's science and engineering enterprise. The FY 2003 appropriation enabled NSF to make progress toward that goal. When asked whether, if funding were available, she would consider advancing construction of some major projects (such as the Rare Symmetry Violating Processes project, scheduled for funding starting in FY 2006), she answered that it was "very important" to continue increasing the grant size and duration.
Several members inquired about NSF's ability to administer its programs, and about an upcoming review of NSF management by the National Academy of Public Administration. Colwell reminded the subcommittee that the Office of Management and Budget had scored NSF highly for its progress in meeting the President's Management Agenda. However, she noted that, as the foundation's budget has grown, staffing levels have remained constant over the past decade and were stretched "to the limit."
In response to other questions, Colwell described NSF's efforts in high-performance computing, nanotechnology, and attracting more American-born students to science and engineering. Discussing the trade-offs between increasing grant size and funding more grants, she admitted that the foundation had to decline approximately $1 billion in proposals each year "of the same quality as those we fund." "I have a sense we're not doing enough," remarked Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI); "you've got to ask for more money." Mollohan questioned why NSF uses rotators rather than permanent employees to fill many positions, and whether this presented conflicts of interest. Using rotators is "one of the strongest, most powerful aspects of NSF," Colwell explained; it enables the Foundation to bring in scientists familiar with "new developments and fresh ideas."
In closing, Walsh said he anticipated subcommittee mark-up of the VA/HUD appropriations bill in early June, and he hoped it would reach the House floor by the Fourth of July.