The reauthorization of NSF was the topic of the first two hearings by the new Research and Science Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology. The issues identified as a priority by Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) included NSF's role in science education; the balance of interdisciplinary and disciplinary research; ways to nurture young researchers; and how to get the most out of NSF's partnerships with industry. Testifying at the first hearing were NSF Director Arden Bement and National Science Board Chairman Steven Beering. Witnesses at the second hearing included representatives of universities, community colleges, government-industry consortia, and professional societies. Subcommittee Ranking Minority Member Vern Ehlers (R-MI) commented that the diversity of constituents who work with NSF demonstrated "the broad impact of this agency."
The subcommittee was very concerned, Baird said, about the slow growth or cuts to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs at NSF. Noting that the FY 2008 request for NSF's Education and Human Resources (EHR) Directorate "remains approximately 10 percent below" the FY 2004 level, Beering highlighted the National Science Board's belief that NSF has the mandate, experience and relationships necessary to play a central role in preparing U.S. citizens to remain globally competitive. "The Board, therefore, strongly urges that NSF education programs be sustained and expanded over the long term as an essential component of a coordinated Federal effort to promote national excellence in STEM education," he said in his testimony. Although Bement's prepared statement did not mention education, during questioning he stated that STEM education "was one of the highest priorities, if not the highest.... I can't think of a more important national need at present." Asked by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) whether NSF was being "squeezed out of K-12 education," Bement replied that the situation was "turning around." Some of the NSF education programs were not "plussed up" in the FY 2008 request, he said, because they were still undergoing evaluation, but he expected that NSF would seek increases to those programs in future budget cycles. Bement added that NSF's education efforts should continue to be focused on R&D into better methods, materials, and teacher training. "If we are asked to take on an implementation role," he said, it would be "more than we could possibly handle." The private-sector witnesses supported a strong NSF role in science education. "We must set aside any notion that NSF's education programs are either subservient to or stand in competition with its research programs," testified Catherine Hunt, President of the American Chemical Society; "I cannot emphasize strongly enough that NSF is uniquely situated as the agency best-suited to bridge the distance between the scientific and education communities."
On the issue of balance between disciplinary and interdisciplinary research, Bement declared that "support for interdisciplinary research is a priority" for NSF. The Foundation gets guidance and feedback on the balance of its portfolio from its "many stakeholders," he said, including the National Science Board, Congress, the National Academies, OSTP, other research agencies, the research community, and the merit review process itself. "As the importance of such interdisciplinary research continues to increase," Hunt noted, "the scientific grant system must adapt to this new paradigm." She suggested broadening the backgrounds of members of NSF's review panels, and encouraged NSF to "watch the NIH experiment" of awarding grants to a small number of co-equal principal investigators. Phyllis Wise, Provost of the University of Washington, Seattle, voiced support for multi-agency interdisciplinary research projects, but commented that the process for applying to cross-agency projects is "very cumbersome and discouraging." She suggested a uniform application process across federal agencies, and providing additional grant money to supplement existing interdisciplinary projects by enabling addition of a junior investigator.
Mechanisms for supporting and encouraging young researchers was a main topic of discussion. "We need to be creative," Baird said, and suggested a pilot program of seed grants to new investigators to help them improve declined proposals. Bement said that NSF had numerous ways to nurture young investigators, including the Faculty Early Career Development program, the Presidential Early Career Awards, placing more emphasis on unsolicited grants and frontier research, and a variety of outreach efforts and workshops to help new researchers understand the proposal submission process and provide feedback to those whose proposals have been declined. The success of these efforts, he felt, was demonstrated by the fact that while NSF's overall proposal success rate had declined since the late 1990s, the success rate for young investigators had remained stable at about 28 percent. It is "imperative that we do everything that we can to help young investigators succeed," Wise said in her testimony. Carlos Meriles, an Assistant Professor of Physics at the City College of New York and a current recipient of an NSF Faculty Early Career Development grant, advocated a short-term "preliminary" award to young faculty to enable "proof of principle" for exceptionally creative ideas, and a twice-annual proposal schedule for the early career development grants. Wise suggested the availability of funding for a small number of "highly meritorious" but unfunded first-time proposals from junior faculty.
NSF can play a significant role in providing incentives for university-industry partnerships, Baird said, and asked how best to leverage such partnerships. Ehlers cautioned that while industry's focus on potential research applications was valuable, it should not be the sole driver of research design. Bement listed a number of NSF programs that foster partnerships, including the Small Business Innovative Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Research, Partnerships for Innovation, and many of NSF's Centers. He noted that while NSF accepts, and may encourage, cost-sharing arrangements, it does not require them, because that would disadvantage many institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) and institutions in EPSCoR states that may be unable to provide matching funds. The "most effective partnership with industry is accomplished through training undergraduate and graduate students who in turn enter the private sector," said Margaret Ford, President of the Houston Community College System - Northeast. Both Meriles and Jeffrey Welser, Director of the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative, advocated student internships in industry, and Welser recommended "giving NSF the flexibility to participate in industry consortia."
Ehlers described the goal of the reauthorization legislation as an attempt to improve the functioning of an agency that was already very good. Baird voiced the subcommittee's support of the Administration's plan for a ten-year doubling of physical sciences basic research, and said research funding levels in the draft legislation would be "aligned with the Administration's plans." In closing, he added that the subcommittee, in drafting its reauthorization bill, would try to "address some of the things brought to our attention today."