"It's impossible to seriously view this as a good budget for science," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) declared at a February 11 hearing on the Administration's FY 2005 S&T request. Boehlert's comments aptly summarize the sentiments of his colleagues on the committee, regardless of what side of the aisle they sit on.
While committee members demonstrated much support for increasing funding for federal S&T programs, their backs are against the fiscal wall. The economy, war, and ballooning federal deficit have created tremendous pressures on federal spending. With the Bush Administration's decision to keep the overall funding increase for discretionary spending to less than one-half of one percent, there is little new money available. As Boehlert said, "we still don't know whether it's the best budget we can get. That's going to depend much more on the overall 'macro' decisions the Congress makes on the budget than on anything else. It's far too early to tell how things will work out."
National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell used this hearing to officially announce that she will leave the foundation this month for industry and academic positions. Filling her position until a new director is confirmed is NIST Director Arden Bement. Committee members had great praise for Colwell's accomplishments at NSF.
Boehlert's remarks were echoed by the new Ranking Minority Member of the committee, Bart Gordon (D-TN), who said that the request demonstrated a "lack of insight" and was "inadequate." Former Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall changed his party affiliation to become a Republican.
The hearing's first witness was OSTP Director John Marburger, who repeated President Bush's State of the Union assertion that national security is the highest priority. He continued, "This Administration understands that science and technology are major drivers of economic growth and important for securing the homeland and winning the war on terrorism."
Regarding spending on physical sciences, Marburger told the committee, "The programs in the Federal R&D budget continue to build upon exciting areas of scientific discovery from hydrogen energy and nanotechnology to the basic processes of living organisms, the fundamental properties of matter, and a new vision of sustained space exploration. Not all programs can or should receive equal priority, and this budget reflects priority choices consistent with recommendations from numerous expert sources. In particular, this budget responds to recommendations by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and others about needs in physical science and engineering."
Other senior Administration S&T officials testified at this hearing, which is but the first in a series that will be held on the FY 2005 request. Colwell told the committee that "NSF is, relatively speaking, doing well"; the foundation received a 3.0% increase in the request. Under Secretary Charles McQueary of the Department of Homeland Security was praised for his efforts during his less than one year in office. He declared that the "nation's advantage in science and technology is key to securing the homeland." Commerce Under Secretary for Technology Phillip Bond provided few details about the Administration's decision to seek termination of the Advanced Technology Program. Both Bond and committee members were very concerned about the 5% reduction in NIST's research program budget for the current year that will result in real funding reductions for all but two of NIST's laboratories. There is fear that this cut could result in a reduction of NIST's scientific staff. DOE Office of Science Director Ray Orbach testified that the budget request "sets us on the path" to increase activities on an across- the-board basis."
The second hour of the hearing was devoted to questions-and-answers. Boehlert asked, and remained unconvinced, about the Administration's plan to transfer NSF's Math-Science Partnership Program to the Department of Education. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said, saying that the transfer was "unlikely to pass." Boehlert also said that he hoped "wiggle room" in the budget request would permit higher funding than that requested for DOE and NSF.
Gordon said he was pleased with the Administration's nanotechnology research request, but said that the United States was not maintaining its world leadership role in S&T. He cited a long list of federal S&T programs for which funding would decline under the Administration's request.
Boehlert's and Gordon's concerns were shared by all of their colleagues. Whether discussing the Math-Science Partnership Program, the real difficulties facing NIST's laboratories, the movement of high-technology jobs overseas, or increasing funding for NSF and DOE, committee members were clearly dissatisfied with what the Administration has requested. Translating the committee's discontentment into additional money for the fiscal year that starts on October 1 is going to be difficult. Committee members will not be able to do it alone; the active involvement of the scientific community will be a necessity.