At a hearing yesterday the new director of the National Science Foundation heard members from both sides of the aisle praise the foundation for its contributions to America’s economic and national security. The “subcommittee is very supportive of your agency” Director Subra Suresh was told within the first minute of this hearing of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, indicative of the sentiments that were heard throughout the remainder of the two and one-half hour hearing.
It was Suresh’s first appearance before House or Senate appropriators, and he told them “I hope to make a clear and compelling case for the critical value of NSF support for science and engineering research and education at a time when America faces many pressing needs and tight budget constraints. I came to the United States as a young engineering student because it was the world’s beacon of excellence in science and engineering research and education. I stayed for the same reason. The mission of NSF is to sustain that excellence as we continue to lead the way for the important discoveries and cutting-edge technologies that will help keep our Nation globally competitive, prosperous, and secure.”
Suresh’s description of NSF’s mission precisely aligned with that of the appropriators. Republican and Democratic members who regularly disagree with each other on most issues that come before Congress spoke in the same terms about the importance of the foundation to the United States. While acknowledging that the 13 percent requested budget increase (over FY 2010 levels) was significant, no one argued that it was excessive. Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) called the $7.8 billion request “a paltry sum” telling his colleagues “we risk being pushed aside” by other nations that are giving a high priority to S&T investments.
The NSF has, Suresh testified, proposed that six of its programs be terminated or reduced in FY 2012. They range from no funding being requested for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory in South Dakota and the Synchrotron Radiation Center at the University of Wisconsin to several education programs. The NSF proposes to launch several new initiatives, as well as enhancing existing programs, such as an increase in the amount of funding provided through its Graduate Research Fellowship program.
Subcommittee members are very interested in improving the performance of American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). They asked many questions about NSF’s programs. Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) asked a series of probing questions about interesting young children in STEM subjects, and how to retain them through school, college, and in the workforce. Committee members expressed their consternation and disappointment about a report that the subcommittee had requested from NSF on K-6 academic “best practices” that was to have been submitted by April 2010. Suresh assured the subcommittee that the foundation is working toward the completion of this report. Wolf expressed concern about proposed reductions in some education programs, with Suresh replying that education is a key component of all of the foundation’s programs. There was also discussion about the respective roles of NSF and the Department of Education, with Suresh’s comments seeming to satisfy the appropriators that there was no duplication of effort.
“NSF is so important to our nation,” Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL) said at the beginning of the hearing. It is clear that these key House appropriators believe in the value of science and technology to the nation, and the key role of the National Science Foundation. It will not be until May or June to know how this support translates into the subcommittee’s recommendation for an FY 2012 budget for the foundation.