Last month’s hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee was the first of a series of hearings that the committee and its subcommittees have held on the Administration’s FY 2012 S&T budget request. Chaired by Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), a long time member of the committee, the hearing was amicable in tone, continuing the committee’s long-standing tradition of a bipartisan approach to legislating and oversight.
John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy appeared before the full committee on February 17. In opening the hearing, Chairman Hall spoke of increases in the national debt and budget deficit that have occurred during the last three years, and cautioned “this level of spending is simply not sustainable.” Hall’s opening remarks about the Administration’s FY 2012 R&D request were fairly broad in nature:
“In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of the need to reinvigorate our future through innovation. American ingenuity will determine our future. However, blanket increases in our Federal spending are not the same as prudent investment and do not guarantee innovation. As stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, we must curtail runaway spending and prioritize programs that lay the foundation for entrepreneurial success.”
Hall was more critical of federal spending on climate change research:
“the Administration’s FY12 research and development budget, at least as it pertains to a majority of the agencies within this Committee’s jurisdiction, continues a heavily weighted focus on climate change, often times taking money from other worthy investments. This rather singular focus for the Federal government’s limited research dollars slows our ability to make innovative and perhaps life altering advances in other equally, if not more important, disciplines. . . .
“Previous investments brought about the internet, the laser, barcodes, MRIs, and even sunscreen. While we should continue to study our changing climate and continue to work towards keeping our air and water clean, we must closely examine the billions of dollars spent on climate change programs with an eye toward effectiveness. From 2006 to now, we have spent $36 billion on climate change and what do we have to show for it? A lot of programs and pamphlets. We need to change that.”
Ranking Minority Member Eddie Bernice Johnson’s (D-TX) remarks were from a different perspective:
“the FY 2012 research and development budget proposal from the president reflects the imperative to invest in our future at the same time that it acknowledges the fiscal environment in which we find ourselves. . . . We can disagree over some of the specific choices in this budget proposal but I share with the president the same goal of maintaining a strong national science and technology enterprise and ensuring that all of our young people are prepared for the technical careers of the future.”
In his remarks, Holdren said the Administration’s request was designed to win the future, and was premised on investments in innovation to create American jobs and a better quality of life. He explained that it would keep the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the research programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology on a doubling trajectory. “Staying the course . . . will not be easy,” in this fiscal environment, Holdren said, calling for a continuation of the partnership between the executive branch and Congress in the support of science and technology.
Hall’s first questions to Holdren were about his role in an EPA decision regarding climate change, with Holdren responding that he had no role in this action. Hall then asked about widely varying estimates regarding expected sea level change, and the views of some researchers who question if climate change has occurred, and if human activities are causing this change. Holdren replied that the “overwhelming view” of scientists is that human activity is responsible for climate change, and that those who differ are “very much in the minority.” He added that there is always a range of opinion in the conduct of science. Later in the hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) asked about climate change, and while disagreeing about the role of human activity, he appeared to agree that research on mitigation and adaptation to what he contends could be natural variation is important.
Ranking Member Johnson’s questions focused on STEM education programs, and coordination between the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education. Holdren advised that much work has been done to coordinate STEM education programs in all agencies, saying “we think we have succeeded in bringing the parties together.” Johnson also asked about the impact of H.R. 1, a funding bill passed by the House last month that included significant budget cuts. Holdren replied that the impact of the cuts would be “devastating,” adding that it would result in 500 fewer research grants and 235 fewer education grants by NSF.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) is the chairman of the committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. He criticized the Administration’s actions during the Gulf oil spill, and its decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Broun asked why it took much longer for the Administration to release its memorandum on scientific integrity, with Holdren replying that “getting it right took a long time.”
The Administration’s support for fusion research was one of the issues that Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) raised, asking if adequate money was being provided for analysis at the National Ignition Facility. Holdren said “I think we are,” adding that the Administration views fusion energy as “very long term” with electricity to the grid not expected before the middle of this century. It is “not our intention to starve” fusion research he assured Lofgren.
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) expressed particular concern about the DOE high energy physics (HEP) program, noting the decision regarding the closure of the Tevatron. In response to a question about the status of the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), Holdren said an agreement between DOE and the NSF “will succeed in keeping DUSEL moving.” When Hultgren pressed Holdren about the varying levels of increases for programs within the Office of Science request, Holdren said the request reflected “a difficult process in priority setting,” adding “HEP remains an important area,” and that the requested $800 million “is not chicken feed.”
Other issues raised during this hearing were barriers to investment in the United States, supporting a high-tech workforce, what the Administration is doing about the availability of critical rare earth materials, NASA’s compliance with its new authorization act, technology transfer, and manufacturing.
Future issues of FYI will review hearings on the FY 2012 requests for NASA, the Department of Energy’s R&D program, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.