Last week's approval by the House Appropriations Committee of the FY 2005 VA, HUD and Independent Agencies Appropriations Bill is only the second time in about the last decade when a cut was recommended in the budget for the National Science Foundation. Under this bill, the foundation's budget would be reduced by 2% or $111 million in the next fiscal year.
It had been predicted that this was going to be a difficult year for the appropriators, and the proposed cut in NSF funding was not completely surprising. Ironically, it comes at a time when support for, and interest in, science and technology are strong on Capitol Hill. While the appropriations committee had almost $92 billion to spend on the departments and agencies in this bill, it was not enough. NASA funding would be cut by 1.5%. The EPA would be reduced by 7.3%. The Department of Housing and Urban Development would receive essentially flat funding. While the Veterans Administration received an increase of $1.9 billion for medical services, veterans' groups had calculated that $3.0 billion in additional funding was needed.
Looking back at previous issues of FYI through 1996, there appears to be only one time when appropriators recommended a cut in NSF funding. In 1999, House appropriators included a 0.7% reduction in the NSF's budget. Rep. James Walsh (R-NY) was also then the chairman of the VA, HUD appropriations subcommittee, and his words in 1999 would fit well today: "We have reduced funding for the National Science Foundation by over $200 million. That is the last thing that I wanted to do in this bill but, again, the balance that we had to strike was very, very fragile, very, very difficult. We literally are borrowing from Peter to pay Paul here." During House floor debate on that bill in September 1999, Walsh assured Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) that the subcommittee knew the plight it had placed the foundation in, and that the subcommittee would try to provide additional funds. Walsh told Ehlers, however, that "I cannot make any ironclad assurances." The Senate later recommended an increase of 7% for NSF. The final conference figure was an increase of 6.5%. "I can't believe it, I just can't believe it," were Senator Barbara Mikulski's (D-MD) words about this positive outcome.
The good outcome in 1999 was due to the appropriators' diligence in locating unused housing funds and by using an accounting technique known as advanced funding. Then-director of the National Science Foundation, Rita Colwell, explained that the appropriators had "demonstrated extraordinary leadership and a clear understanding of the importance of investing in science and engineering." Colwell said that the support of major figures in both the House and Senate was instrumental in securing the increase. Also important was the role that then-director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew, played.
While the situation this year has parallels to that in 1999, there are differences. The United States is actively engaged in a war this year, and the economy is different. However, this year the control of the White House and Senate and House of Representatives rests in one party, which should theoretically make it easier to craft a strategy. Then, as now, the active support that constituents demonstrate for the National Science Foundation will play a decisive role in shaping the budget in the new fiscal year.