The new chairman and ranking minority member of the House Science Subcommittee on Research had the opportunity on March 9 to demonstrate their enthusiastic support for NSF, its responsibilities in supporting basic research and science education, and the value of basic research to America's future competitiveness.
"Basic research is surely the lifeblood of innovation," Chairman Bob Inglis (R-SC) said in his opening statement at the hearing on NSF's budget and management challenges. "Without NSF supporting basic research, our edge in science will slip away." He declared that the proposed FY 2006 increase above NSF's current budget "doesn't make up for last year's cuts." The budget, he said, is "still below the FY 2004 level" and "far below the promised level of doubling." Ranking Member Darlene Hooley (D-OR) called the request "clearly inadequate to meet [NSF's] wide-ranging responsibilities." Both subcommittee members questioned the proposed reductions in NSF science education programs, and the transfer of $48 million for the Foundation to take over operations and maintenance of several Coast Guard icebreaking ships that support NSF polar programs and are nearing the end of their useful lives. Taking this transfer into account, Hooley pointed out, would mean that NSF's Research and Related Activities account would receive an increase of only 0.3 percent above current funding rather than 2.7 percent as stated in the request (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/017.html for details on NSF's FY 2006 budget request).
In describing the FY 2006 request of $5.6 billion, NSF Administrator Arden Bement cited "four broad priorities": strengthening core disciplinary research; providing broadly accessible cyberinfrastructure and world-class research facilities; broadening participation in the science and engineering workforce; and sustaining organizational excellence in NSF management practices. He explained that NSF's priorities are developed with input from the research community, the National Academy of Sciences, professional societies, workshops, conferences, and advisory boards. They are refined through consultations with NSF management, the National Science Board (NSB), and OSTP, and finally negotiated with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In his testimony, Bement highlighted the management and workforce issues faced by the Foundation, noting that over the past 12 years, the number of proposals received annually has grown by over 50 percent, while the number of full-time equivalent employees has only increased by 5.7 percent. While NSF has relied on technologies and efficiencies to deal with the increasing workload, he said, "the need for additional people becomes an overriding need at some point, and we have reached that point." He also mentioned the need to increase the proposal success rate. Regarding the proposed cuts to NSF's Education and Human Resources account, he said the Foundation's focus was on protecting programs aimed at increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering.
Mark Wrighton, speaking on behalf of the NSB, said one way the Board contributes to the setting of priorities for NSF is by approving its annual budget submission. He said the Board had approved the FY 2006 proposal that was submitted to OMB in September 2004, and "generally" supports the President's ultimate FY 2006 request. "However," he added, "we and others have noted that the request remains below the 2004 operating budget." Should "additional funds be made available" through the congressional appropriations process, he said, the Board would recommend "strong and growing" support for science and math education, addressing the backlog of approved, prioritized large facility projects, and addressing the financial burden due to the transfer of the icebreakers.
Inglis's first question went to the "tension" between supporting K-12 education programs and NSF's other activities, both in higher education and in research. "Let me assure you there is no tension," Bement replied. He stated that outreach to K-12 pervades all NSF programs. Bement went on to say that NSF has spent over 10 years supporting rural and urban systemic education initiatives, and now the best practices and lessons learned "need to be propagated across all school districts in the country." The place with the resources to do so, he said, is "in the Department of Education." He reiterated that NSF would maintain programs aimed at broadening participation in science and engineering. "It seems to me that we're going to fall far short of that goal if we don't generate enough interest in grade school and high school," Hooley said. Bement replied that NSF's education programs, although successful, reach "only a minute fraction of the total school districts in the country…. We have to build those programs in the Department of Education," he continued, so they can "touch all school districts."
Asked about the management challenges outlined in the testimony of NSF Inspector General Christine Boesz, including planning for future workforce needs and the lack of resources for post-award monitoring activities, Bement admitted that the Foundation's progress was "resource-paced." That was the reason, he said, for the requested 20.5 percent increase in NSF's Salaries and Expenses account.
Bement explained that the decision to transfer funds for the icebreakers was made by the White House because of concern that the Coast Guard's homeland security responsibilities would not support operations and maintenance of the ships for scientific research, thus putting NSF's "polar programs at risk." He reported that an inter-agency working group was looking into whether the$48 million transfer would be sufficient. When Hooley referred to indications from the Coast Guard that the real need might be closer to $75 million, NSF Polar Programs Director Karl Erb responded that the Coast Guard estimated an annual need of $70-75 million over the next 4-5 years to keep the ships operational until they underwent a life-extension program. He said discussions were ongoing "to see what our options are to meet those requirements" within available funding, but it was "much too early to predict how it comes out."
Rep. Dan Lipinsky (D-IL) questioned how Bement intended to increase the proposal success rate with an essentially flat budget while maintaining grant size and duration. "There are many practical ways" of doing that, Bement answered. By making solicitations more focused, managing community expectations of the success rate better, limiting solicitations to those addressing key programs of the Foundation, and in some cases stretching resources by giving awards over two years, Bement hoped the proposal volume could be reduced and the success rate increased. "It's not going to go up dramatically without new resources," he said, but at least it might "halt the erosion." He remarked that NSF wants to increase the awards to unsolicited proposals, because they are often closer to "frontier" research and support newer researchers, often from underrepresented groups.
"We're looking to you for innovation," Inglis stated in closing, and "you're looking to us" to provide appropriate resources. It is important to note, however, that the House Science Committee is an authorizing committee, and does not control the appropriations process.