A House Science Committee hearing last month on the Bush Administration's FY 2006 R&D budget request was critical in tone regarding both overall funding figures and proposed changes to programs.
The opening comments of the committee's top Republican and Democrat capture the committee's thinking. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) stated (paragraphs combined in the interest of space): "The budget proposal before us raises serious questions about our nation's direction in the coming years. While the President's budget proposal for R&D can legitimately be seen either as a glass half full or a glass half empty, no one could describe it as a glass that is filled enough to satisfy the nation's thirst for scientific advancement. . . . The budget is a glass half full in that R&D as a whole has fared better, and basic research has fared no worse, than non-defense domestic discretionary spending as a whole. In other words, it would be unfair to describe the attitude behind this budget as in any way ‘anti-science.' We are living through a period of stringent austerity, and the science budget reflects that rather than any hostility toward science." Boehlert praised the requested 12% increase for NIST's laboratories, and noted the NSF increase. But he had far more words that were critical: "Key science agencies, most notably perhaps DOE's Office of Science, would see their budgets cut. NSF education programs would be cut by 12 percent -- about as misguided a policy as one could imagine. I should say Congress tried going down this foolhardy path with regard to NSF in the early 1980s and quickly reversed course. And perhaps most disturbingly of all, the outlook for the outyears seems to be more of the same. Now, I don't doubt that science growth will have to be restrained in this budget environment. . . . But I think we have to think long and hard about whether it is in the long-term interest of the United States to have a multi-year period of real dollar cuts in spending on R&D. And we also have to think more clearly about what our priorities are in a period of restrained growth. . . ."
The committee's Ranking Minority Member, Bart Gordon (D-TN) said in his opening remarks that OSTP Director John Marburger had stated that this is "a pretty good year for research funding." Gordon disputed this characterization, citing proposed cuts to K-12 math and science education, NASA's aeronautics research, NOAA research, the DOE Office of Science, the Manufacturing Extension Program, and the Advanced Technology Program. He called the Administration's approach "short-sighted," adding, "maintaining a lead in science technology is a flat out race. If we stop running at the top speed we can manage, we will lose. Even in the current fiscal crisis this budget is not the top speed we can manage for science and technology investment." While Boehlert replied that his perspective on the budget request was not exactly that of Gordon, Boehlert said, "whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, chairman or a ranking member, we are committed to the proposition that wise investments in science pay handsome dividends for our future."
Testifying at this hearing were OSTP Director John Marburger, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement, Commerce Deputy Secretary Theodore Kassinger, and Homeland Security Under Secretary Charles McQueary. Their opening remarks focused on budget priorities with little discussion of what would not be funded. As expected, the witnesses stressed budget growth over the last four years, as compared to year-to-year. Said Marburger, "The administration has made difficult choices and it has maintained the strength in priority areas such as nanotechnology, information technology, the hydrogen initiative and space exploration." Energy Secretary Bodman, who was testifying before this committee for the first time, explained "I believe very passionately in the role that science has played over the last century in the economic growth of our country, and I really believe that what occurs in this budget will continue that record on into the future." NSF Director Bement said, as he has before, that "in light of the tight fiscal climate, we believe we have fared relatively well." Regarding the proposed 12.4% cut in the Education and Human Resources Directorate, Bement stated, "although we have found it necessary to make cuts in these programs, we are also finding ways to leverage other resources in support of education." Commerce Deputy Secretary Kassinger avoided the proposed cut and termination (respectively) in the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Advanced Technology Program. Homeland Security Under Secretary McQueary's testimony centered on the development of technologies.
Committee members were skeptical in their statements and questions. Boehlert called the proposed cut in the Manufacturing Extension Partnership "unacceptable," and wondered if the NSF education recommendation was "a stealth effort to get it out of NSF and over exclusively in [the Department of] Education," saying it would be "vigorously oppose[d]." He later said that the proposed DOE Office of Science budget request "does badly" at funding its three major priorities. Gordon expressed skepticism about the proposed transfer of Coast Guard polar ice breaking ships to NSF and future costs. Other questions centered on nanotechnology, energy research, and external safety regulation at civilian DOE laboratories.
When time passed to Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) he told the witnesses, "I really have very few questions. I have lots of complaints. And the point is simply that the funding for science this year is just inadequate. I recognize the tough budget, I recognize tough times, I recognize the military necessities we have. But we seem to forget the important role that research and education plays in our national defense and also in our national prosperity." He later called the proposed S&T research and education budget request "very penny-wise and pound-foolish, adding, "the money we're putting into science is likely, for the long term, much more important for the defense of this nation than any money we're spending this year on the Defense budget." Ehlers was especially critical of the proposed cut in NSF education funding.
Also coming under fire was the NOAA request to reduce by almost half the funding for the Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program. In response to questions by Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) about NIST funding, Marburger said "we're very serious about our proposal to eliminate the ATP Program," saying "it clearly is not a core mission of NIST." During her time, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) spoke of the lengthy, and ultimately successful, effort that had been made to raise physical sciences funding at the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and "that suddenly . . . the priority is going down again." The one contrary voice to the general tone of this hearing was that of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who cited the $500 billion level of deficit spending, and said, "either we're serious about this $500 billion deficit or we're not." Rohrabacher also made critical comments about DOE's fusion energy sciences program, wanted information about NOAA's fleet, and wanted to know if commercial entities profiting from the federal nanotechnology program would be required to repay the government.
This hearing did not review the NASA budget request which was the topic of a separate hearing. That hearing will be the subject of a future FYI.