In his testimony to a House appropriations subcommittee, Acting NSF Director Arden Bement explained the situation succinctly: "Let me begin with the big picture. This year the National Science Foundation is requesting $5.745 billion dollars. That's an increase of $167 million, or 3 percent more than in the FY 2004 enacted level. In light of the significant challenges that face the nation - in security, defense, and the economy - NSF has, relatively speaking, fared well. An increase of 3 percent, at a time when many agencies are looking at budget cuts, is certainly a vote of confidence in the National Science Foundation's stewardship of these very important components of the nation's goals."
House VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh (R-NY) is a strong supporter of NSF, as demonstrated by his words at this April 1 hearing that "this subcommittee bows to no one" in championing the foundation. But he told Bement and National Science Board Chair Warren Washington that "doubling [the NSF budget] will be very, very difficult," an assessment shared by the subcommittee's Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D-WV).
Looming over the FY 2005 appropriations cycle is this year's projected $500 billion federal budget deficit. Against this backdrop, sights have been lowered on Capitol Hill about what is possible in this and coming years. Under the non-binding budget plan recently passed by the House, overall spending for NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NASA would increase only 2.0% between FY 2005 and FY 2009. Bement called this funding profile "very disappointing" given the high expectations for NSF in the future.
In his opening testimony, Washington strongly supported the NSF and the research it funds, and while saying that the Board "generally supports" the FY 2005 request, he explained that there are "thousands of excellent proposals we cannot fund."
Walsh's first question to Bement concerned the diminishing number of young people interested in science, and the seeming "disconnect" between the number of upcoming new researchers and the technological requirements of the future economy. Bement replied that this was a "national problem of critical dimensions" that must be addressed by career training and increasing motivation. Washington cited an NSB report (http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/documents/2003/nsb0369/nsb0369.pdf ) issued last August, and said that securing sufficient funding for proven strategies is a major problem.
Mollohan asked about a January 2004 NSB report( http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/documents/2003/nsb03151/coverlink.pdf ) that found $19 billion is needed to fully address all unmet NSF needs. Saying that this figure is "out of touch with what is going on here," Mollohan asked Bement how the NSF would proceed. Bement replied that the foundation would "stick to our knitting" by "taking care of our basic mission." For his part, Washington said that the Board would engage in new planning. Mollohan responded by citing the NSF doubling bill that Congress passed and the President signed and said that he saw "a pattern" of "generous authorizations and stingy financing."
The Advanced Technological Education program received considerable attention by committee members since the Bush Administration is proposing a 15.6% or $7.1 million reduction in FY 2005 funding. This program, according to NSF, "supports improvement in technician education in science - and engineering-related fields that drive the nation's economy, particularly at two-year colleges and secondary schools, by supporting the design and implementation of new curricula, courses, laboratories, educational materials, opportunities for faculty and student development, and collaboration among educational institutions and partners from business, industry, and government." The NSF budget document explains that the proposed reduction "will preclude the program from supporting additional activities in core mathematics and science in community colleges and from supporting summer and other research opportunities for community college faculty and students at four-year institutions and research laboratories." Joseph Knollenberg (R-MI), David Price (D-NC) and Robert Cramer (D-AL) all criticized the proposed reduction. Bement acknowledged that it was "a hard trade off." Other Administration proposed reductions or eliminations in Education and Human Resource programs were also criticized, including that for EPSCoR, informal science, and the Math and Science Partnerships.
In a second round of questions, Chairman Walsh asked Bement about the contrast between the 1.2% requested increase for core research funding and the 11% requested hike for science and technology centers' funding. The core funding request reflects, Walsh said, a twenty-year trend during which core research funding has not significantly increased. Bement replied that attention should be paid to this situation, but also said that the foundation's growing support for nanotechnology research offsets to some extent the funding profile for math, physical science, and engineering research. Walsh asked if it was "prudent" to enter into longer-term financing of new centers given the budget situation, and also wondered if it was wise to support increased funding for nanotechnology if core research funding is put at risk. It would be "tough to find the money" Walsh said to Bement, for core research, Education and Human Resource programs, and centers. Bement identified nanotechnology as the foundation's highest priority
Other topics raised by subcommittee members concerned the financial impact of the President's Moon-Mars initiative on NSF funding since their appropriations bill funds both NSF and NASA, money for high risk research, public access to research findings, and security risks posed by terrorists accessing NSF research results. Walsh ended the hearing without offering any conclusions or predictions. The next stage for NSF funding in the VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies appropriations bill now moves behind closed doors, as both the House and Senate have concluded their hearings.