One of the most important hearings for the National Science Foundation was held yesterday by the Senate, VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. The hearing produced both good news and bad news.
The good news: Subcommittee Chairman Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO) and Ranking Minority Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), are united in their support for the NSF. Both believe that the foundation and its programs are essential for the nation's security and economic prosperity. Both expressed deep disappointment in the Bush Administration's 3% requested increase for NSF. Bond and Mikulski each said that they wanted to increase the foundation's budget for next year.
The bad news: there is very little money. Bond's words neatly summarize the situation: "OMB's budget request for NSF is disappointing given the scientific, economic, and educational importance of its programs. However, with major funding shortfalls throughout the VA-HUD account, it is going to be a major and perhaps an impossible challenge to find additional funds for NSF for FY 2005. I am committed to NSF, but this year's budget is the most difficult I have seen in years. I want to work with the Administration, but we need to find ways to increase NSF's budget as we move forward, if not this year, next year."
Bond and Mikulski have long shared common views regarding NSF, and work well together. Indicative of their working relationship was how Mikulski initially chaired the hearing while Bond was at another important hearing an example of bipartisanship that is rarely seen today on Capitol Hill. Mikulski cited the NSF authorization bill that President Bush signed a little over a year ago, comparing the authorized level of $7.3 billion with the President's request of $5.7 billion, a $1.7 billion shortfall. She, like Bond, is not only disappointed with the request, but with some of its components.
Both senators have expressed much support for NSF's education programs, and each criticized the Administration's proposal to phase out NSF's Math-Science Partnership Program. This plan seems doomed, as key members of the House Science Committee also expressed opposition to this proposal. Bond and Mikulski heavily criticized proposed Administration funding reductions to minority programs, informal science education, undergraduate, and tech talent programs. The chairman was troubled by an 11% proposed cut to the EPSCoR program that targets underserved states. Both senators used words like "troubled," "disappointed," "disagree," and "wrong," when describing the Administration's NSF request, and their reaction to it.
The promise of nanotechnology was discussed by both senators, although they worry that public fears could derail it as has occurred with genetically modified foods. Mikulski urged that NSF "engage with the critics," listen to their fears, and then "meet concerns head on" with a public education campaign.
Bond told the Administration witnesses, OSTP Director John Marburger, NSF Acting Director Arden Bement (who was serving his fourth day in this position), and National Science Board Chairman Warren Washington that he is still troubled by the foundation's large facility project prioritization process. "NSF must have a priority-setting process that is credible, fair, rational and transparent. Until then, it will be difficult for me to support any new MREFC [Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction] proposals." Bond, and Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) asked about the status of the proposed Homestake Mine underground laboratory. NSF will hold a meeting on this proposal in March. The witnesses assured the senators that the foundation was following its traditional peer review approach to this proposal and would keep the subcommittee informed about any developments, an answer that appeared to be satisfactory to the senators.
The House VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee will be holding its NSF hearing in about a month. Those appropriators are unlikely to have any more money to work with than their Senate counterparts. For those supporting a larger increase than the 3% that the Administration has proposed, Senator Mikulski's words at yesterday's hearing are worth remembering: "Senator Bond and I are committed to doubling NSF's budget. It's bipartisan and bicameral. But we cannot do it alone."