New House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and his colleagues engaged in a thoughtful 90-minute dialogue last week with John Marburger, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. While there were many areas of apparent agreement between committee members and Director Marburger, there were notable areas of disagreement about the Administration’s FY 2008 budget request for science and technology.
An often-repeated concern was the Administration’s approach to K-12 science and mathematics education. Citing the National Academies’ Gathering Storm report, Gordon brought up this issue early in his opening remarks when he said that the report’s “number one recommendation for improving math and science education has been improving teacher training. Still, the Administration continues to ignore these facts and instead has focused 70 percent of the education component of its competitiveness initiative on the very narrow area of K-8 math curriculum at the Department of Education - an agency that already has been overburdened and underfunded . . . . This is a case of misplaced priorities, and I am hopeful that the Administration will reconsider scaling out the considerable experience and success of K-12 programs at NSF.”
Gordon had other concerns: the declining share of federal R&D as a percentage of the nation’s GDP, funding decreases for NASA’s science programs, reduced funding for the Commerce Department’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the proposed eliminations of the Advanced Technology Program and DOE’s Industrial Technologies Program. Chairman Gordon praised the proposed budget increase for the American Competitiveness Initiative, but said the FY 2008 R&D request “lacks the priorities and consistency to ensure our competitiveness now and in the long run.”
Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) praised the requested increases for “physical sciences and engineering” for NSF, the Office of Science, and the NIST research program. He also spoke approvingly of the increased requests for the Advanced Energy Initiative and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “As for NASA, a 3.1 percent increase is good, but it still may not be sufficient to ensure that we meet the 2014 goal to launch the new Crew Exploration Vehicle,” Hall said, adding that it was worried that additional reductions in the exploration system program will delay the transition from the Space Shuttle.
In his opening remarks, Marburger cited the record FY 2008 $142.7 billion request for federal R&D, acknowledging that there has been significant growth in the budget for defense-related development. He explained that non-defense R&D would increase almost seven times faster than overall non-defense discretionary funding in FY 2008. Later in his remarks he discussed the requested FY 2008 funding increase for basic research - up almost $1 billion above the appropriated 2006 level - and told the committee, “it is notable that this favorable treatment of Basic Research is occurring in a year of belt-tightening for many other domestic programs, indicating the high priority this Administration places on the importance of this activity.” Marburger also spoke of his disappointment in the FY 2007 $452 million shortfall in funding for the first year of the American Competitiveness Initiative, and described, as did an Associate OSTP Director at the budget roll-out earlier this month, the difficulty of funding the full FY 2008 ACI request.
In his written testimony, Marburger departed from the usual tenor of such remarks and expressed great concerns about NASA: “Finally, let me finish by expressing a concern regarding NASA and the budget danger that lies ahead for this agency. The President’s FY 2008 Budget includes a 3.1 percent increase for NASA in 2008 on top of the President’s 3.4 percent requested increase for 2007. However, the 2007 full-year CR as it stands now cuts NASA $545 million from the President’s request. That leaves NASA at its 2006 level with no increase and puts at risk the Vision for Space Exploration and priority Earth and space science missions. Certainly at risk is the timely development of a new, much more capable U.S. human spacecraft to follow the Shuttle which will be retired in 2010.”
Following the opening remarks, Gordon began by asking Marburger about K-12 science and math education funding, and objected to the Administration’s emphasis on a K-8 math curriculum. Gordon wants more emphasis on teacher training, citing statistics that most physical science teachers lack a major or certification in this area. Gordon also asked why NASA was not included in the American Competitiveness Initiative, to which Marburger replied that the agency has been better funded than NSF, the DOE Office of Science, and the NIST research program. There was also discussion about the federal Earth observing systems, and disagreement if NASA’s five-year budget plan provides enough money.
Ranking Member Hall first spoke of his concerns about the NASA budget, urging that the Administration and Congress not change their expectations for the agency’s programs. Hall is worried about the workforce impacts that the agency’s budget constraints will have, a point that Marburger agreed with as NASA transitions away from the shuttle. Marburger admitted “It is certainly going to be difficult for NASA to achieve what it needs to achieve with the constraints that are emerging in the budget situation . . . I must say that I don’t have the answers to all of the questions that can be asked . . . I don’t believe that we should retreat from our expectations.” This conversation between Marburger and Hall closely resembled that in a Senate appropriations hearing on NASA last year (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/052.html .) Said Gordon, “there needs to be more money in this program.”
Another committee member asked about the increased funding request for ITER, Marburger replying that it was the “essential next step.” Marburger was asked about the health impacts of nanotechnology, with there being general agreement that public sentiment could turn against it. Gordon added that a nanotechnology hearing will be held later this year. After discussion of several other issues, the questioning returned to K-12 science and math education, particularly the roles of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) telling Marburger that “this is a major issue.”