The contrast could not have been greater. Last Thursday, in a small hearing room on the third floor of the Capitol, a fiscally-conservative Republican representing a suburban and rural district in Virginia, and a liberal Democrat representing a district in Philadelphia appeared to be in complete agreement about the budget request for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Meanwhile, only a minute’s walk away, Democratic and Republican representatives on the House floor vigorously disagreed about federal spending.
This ninety-minute hearing was the latest demonstration of the bipartisan sentiment that many appropriators and authorizers have about the importance of science and technology to the nation’s economy and security. A constant theme running through this hearing by the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee was the concern about jobs: jobs now, and in the future. In each instance, Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) view the programs supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as important to the nation’s current and future prosperity.
This subcommittee has been very supportive of the science agencies under its jurisdiction: NIST, the National Science Foundation, and NASA. In his opening comments, Wolf told NIST Director Patrick Gallagher that the subcommittee tried to protect NIST’s FY 2011 budget in last February’s H.R. 1 that proposed major funding cuts for almost every agency. Wolf has long made his concerns about U.S. manufacturing job creation and retention well-known. He described NIST’s work in the support of U.S. manufacturing as “very, very, very important,” and expressed disappointment about the lack of public attendance at this hearing.
Midway through the hearing Wolf expressed his hope that federal support for science and technology would remain unpoliticized. He called for Americans to come together to ensure that the 21st century would be, as the 20th century had been, “the American century.”
Gallagher was on the same page as Wolf and Fattah. He described how NIST’s programs directly or indirectly deal with the issues that the appropriators raised, in areas such as the development of standards for name matching and trusted identities cyber-security programs, Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, and work with the National Nuclear Security Administration in nuclear forensics. Wolf seemed satisfied with Gallagher’s response about how NIST’s work on green building technologies fits with its core research programs.
There was considerable support for NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program. Fattah praised the program’s assistance to manufacturers in his district, saying “the program has worked well.” Fattah noted that both he and Wolf have received letters supporting MEP from all fifty states -- an indication that Members do pay attention to their mail. Gallagher spoke about the appropriate federal role for government support to manufacturers. He said that while it is easy to determine what is and is not appropriate on the spectrum that ranges from basic research to commercialization that “it’s the areas in the middle that are tricky.” Gallagher asked for the subcommittee’s help in making these kinds of determinations.
NIST still has budget issues that it must confront. Gallagher expressed his worries that the $75 million requested for the Technology Innovation Program would limit its national impact. Some of NIST’s laboratories in Colorado and Maryland are old and need replacing. MEP funding is not enough to satisfy ever-increasing demands for this program. And overarching all of the appropriators’ deliberations are discussions about future levels of federal spending that are taking place behind the closed doors of other offices on Capitol Hill.