"One can say that I am beginning to feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football that Lucy is holding,"Chairman Christopher Bond (R-MO) told Administration witnesses at yesterday's hearing on the FY 2004 National Science Foundation request. Bond and Ranking Minority Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) have had highly visible roles in advocating a doubling of the foundation's budget. Both were displeased that the Bush Administration had requested an increase of only 3.2% in the NSF budget for next year. Bond predicted that he would find more money.
Congress is a very busy place these days, and as a consequence, only Bond and Mikulski attended this one-hour hearing. The two senators will be writing the FY 2004 VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies appropriation bill, now expected to be out in May. Several themes arose at yesterday's hearing.
One, Bond and Mikulski are on the same page in their support of higher budgets for NSF. Both used exactly the same words - paltry and disappointing- in describing the request. Both said that it was not an NSF budget, but an Office of Management and Budget budget. Mikulski: We were "disappointed last year in the NSF budget and we still are." There is no discernable difference in the positions of these two powerful senators on greater NSF funding.
Two, Bond and Mikulski continue to be frustrated at the funding disparity between NSF and the National Institutes of Health. Chairman Bond cited the recommendation of a panel of the President 's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) that funding for physical sciences and engineering reach a parity with that for life sciences. Bond: "...while federal support in life sciences has increased significantly, the combined share of the funding for the physical sciences and engineering has not kept pace." "I am alarmed by this disparity because the decline in funding for the physical sciences has put our Nation's capabilities for scientific innovation at risk."
Three, within the NSF request, the senators identified specific programs that should be augmented. Chairman Bond cited the request for smaller and underrepresented research institutions, nanotechnology, and the plant genome program. Mikulski spoke of the total amount of money requested for research. Both cited under funding of the Tech Talent program.
Four, Bond still is troubled by certain aspects of NSF's management, especially its "management and oversight of its large research facilities." He said he was "disappointed" about some of the findings in the NSF's Inspector General's written testimony.
Five, the foundation's prioritization process for large facility projects is "also a concern" to Bond. He spoke of "some large gaps" in the description of this process in the budget justification sent to Congress. In concluding his written remarks, Bond told NSF Director Rita Colwell "all these accomplishments [over the last five years] will be overshadowed by the management problems if they remain unresolved." It should be noted that at last year's NSF hearing Bond was visibly frustrated in his remarks about management issues, and seemed much less so at yesterday's hearing.
Six, Bond is interested in the independence of the National Science Board's operations, and was not happy that the Administration had requested no money for the board in FY 2004. He expects the Administration to request supplemental funding for the board.
Seven, it is not unusual for appropriators to be somewhat leery of authorization bills. That was not the case at yesterday's hearing. Bond cited the NSF Authorization Act that puts the foundation on a track to double its budget, telling OSTP Director John Marburger that President Bush had signed this legislation. Bond also said that a panel of PCAST members, which Marburger co-chairs, had recommended much higher funding for the physical sciences. "What happened?," asked Bond, adding that the request was inconsistent with both this law and the PCAST panel's recommendation. Marburger replied that when the foundation's request was written the FY 2003 NSF budget had not been passed. Bond was not persuaded, saying that the two appropriations committee reports both contained significant increases for NSF. Marburger responded that the foundation's requested increase was significantly higher than that for other R&D agencies, and that this boded well for the future.