The March 11 appropriations hearing on the FY 2006 budget requests for the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science and Technology Policy did not follow the customary path. A major change in the appropriations subcommittee structure and a shift in tenor marked this hearing of the newly established Science, State, Justice, and Commerce and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. James Walsh (R-NY) and Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) no longer chair the two appropriations subcommittees having jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. In a move that most view as favorable for science, the House and Senate slimmed their appropriations subcommittee structure and eliminated the VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Subcommittees. The new Senate subcommittee is named the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, and is chaired by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) with the Ranking Minority Member remaining as Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). Further information about this subcommittee can be found at http://appropriations.senate.gov/
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) is the chairman of the new House subcommittee. Wolf chaired the former approptiations subcommittee, represents constituents in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and to the west, and was first elected to Congress in 1981. Additional information on Chairman Wolf can be found at http://www.house.gov/wolf/ The Democrats' Ranking Member on the subcommittee is Alan Mollohan (D-WV), who held the same title on the VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Subcommittee. For information on this subcommittee, see http://appropriations.house.gov/
Wolf opened this important hearing by speaking of the "enormous challenge" his subcommittee faces in this year's budget environment. He quickly added that because of his concerns about the nation's S&T status in the world he would "like to do something very dramatic" in the subcommittee relative to physics, mathematics, and other fields. "We are dropping dramatically" he said, referring to increased competition in S&T from countries such as those in Eastern Europe. "I'm worried . . . we want our country to be strong," he said. Wolf lauded a recommendation in a book by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich that college loans for students studying math, science and engineering be forgiven. Wolf sees the upcoming appropriations bill his subcommittee will write as an opportunity "to dramatically turn this [U.S. slippage in S&T] around."
It has become fairly common for the OSTP director, NSF director, and National Science Board chairman to appear jointly at these annual appropriations hearings. Usually the OSTP director makes a short opening statement, and is asked a few relatively low-key questions. These hearings usually focus on the NSF request.
This hearing was following a fairly predictable course until OSTP Director John Marburger Marburger started explaining the S&T budget request, and explained that the Administration did not include earmarked funds. It was around the point when Marburger said "Earmarks are not consistent with using funds most efficiently to target agency missions or to support the best research," that Wolf interrupted. With emotion, Wolf said he thought there was "a degree of arrogance" in what seemed to be the assertion that Congress should not make funding decisions. The atmosphere in the hearing room shifted noticeably in tenor. Wolf repeated his concern about the international position of U.S. S&T, called the NSF request a "mixed bag . . . no overall theme jumps out," and noted that the proposed budget includes no new starts. He also asked about an article appearing in that day's Washington Post that discussed the possible downsizing of NASA's workforce.
Mollohan asked pointed questions about the redirection of many of NASA's programs to return to the moon, with a possible later manned expedition to Mars. Somewhat unexpectedly for an appropriator, as Mollohan himself admitted, was his statement to Marburger that the Administration needed to send a NASA reauthorization bill to Congress to accomplish this redirection. Mollohan questioned NASA's estimate of the cost of carrying out the lunar/Mars missions, saying "everyone says you can't do it." Later in the hearing, Mollohan shifted his emphasis, wanting to know the foundation's request to the Office of Management and Budget in its initial submission last year. When Mollohan asked Ray Bowen of National Science Board what the foundation would do with additional funding, Bowen listed three priorities: the Education and Human Resources Directorate, backlogged facilities, and costs associated with the proposed transfer of the Coast Guard's icebreakers now used for polar research support.
Next to speak was John Culberson (R-TX) who began by telling Marburger "You are among friends here." He said he shared his chairman's views on earmarking and quoted language from the Constitution describing the power of Congress to appropriate money. Culberson, a strong fiscal conservative, criticized the overall level of NSF funding, telling Marburger that S&T spending is a "national insurance policy," and said "we have to pour it [S&T funding] on." He criticized the foundation's proposed cut in Education and Human Resources spending and asked, "how do you defend it?" Marburger replied that "there is a logic here" in having the Department of Education assume a larger role in math and science education. Culberson disagreed and said he would work to restore this money. Culberson characterized the foundation's inability to stay even with inflation as "deeply disturbing." The congressman took issue with the Administration's plans to transfer the Coast Guard's icebreakers to the NSF, saying the $48 million that would be shifted for the icebreakers to NSF "camouflages" the actual size of the budget increase. There was also discussion about future costs of maintaining the two ships that will need hundreds of millions of dollars for renovation and repair in coming years, with Culberson saying it would be "a real boat anchor around your neck." Later in the hearing, Mollohan also criticized the icebreaker transfer.
Rep. Robert E. "Bud" Cramer (D-AL) continued the line of questioning and the tenor of the hearing. He repeated that NASA headquarters was making a mistake by not seeking an authorization for the large-scale changes in mission, saying to Marburger, "You can't come over here and roll us." Marburger replied that NASA was trying to have a more transparent vision of its overall objectives, said the agency did not want to diminish its science role, but added that tough choices had to be made in budgeting. Also critical was Chaka Fattah (D-PA), who decried the relatively few minority students studying science, mathematics, and engineering.
Wolf then described the importance of his education to his success in life, and repeated that his objective was to do something in this area that was broadly-based. The chairman asked NSF Director Arden Bement a series of questions about the proposed 12% reduction in the foundation's Education and Human Resources budget. The chairman wanted to know how many teachers would be served after some of the foundation's money was shifted to the Department of Education in the new fiscal year, as compared to this year. Bement said he would provide the numbers for the record. Bement explained that the foundation was able to reach only a limited number of school districts through its programs. The reach of the Department of Education would be greater, he said.
During a later line of questioning, Culberson called the foundation's grant success rate "appalling and disturbing." Earlier, in response to questions from Wolf, Bement described the "enormous strain" of arranging 250,000 peer reviews for the 43,000 proposals the foundation receives each year. He also described the many proposals that were left on the table for lack of adequate funding (see the Coalition for National Science Funding's FY 2006 statement for additional numbers regarding unfunded proposals at http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/034.html .) Bement told Wolf that a way had to be found to reverse this situation. Culberson said NSF funding increases should be much closer to the 15% that the NSF reauthorization act sets as an annual target.
It was very evident that the Members of the new House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice and Commerce have keen interest in the Administration's science budget. Strong words of support were given about the importance of science to the country, and the vital role that the National Science Foundation plays in the nation's science enterprise. Members clearly had great concerns about reducing the foundation's budget for Education and Human Resources, and had tough questions about the redirection of NASA's programs. So there is clearly a "will" by Chairman Wolf and his Republican and Democratic colleagues to increase funding for science and technology in general, and specifically, for the National Science Foundation. Now a "way" has to be found to accomplish that, and as Chairman Wolf said toward the end of this hearing, "money is going to be very, very tight."