Almost without exception, members of the House appropriations and authorization committees expressed strong bipartisan support for the FY 2013 request for the National Science Foundation. As has been true in previous years, NSF’s budget for next year will likely be shaped more by overall funding constraints than by the particulars of the foundation’s request.
NSF Director Subra Suresh and National Science Board Chairman Ray Bowen appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education on February 28. Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) opened the hearing by heavily criticizing the Administration’s overall FY 2013 request, calling it “an irresponsible pie-in-the-sky wish list.” He was, however, far more supportive of the federal government’s role in the support of basic research:
“While my colleagues and I may disagree on the best priorities for federal research dollars, I am sure that we can all agree that support for basic research is important and essential to our economy. Basic research is an investment in America’s future. It is a productive, ‘job creator.’ The fruits of that research create jobs and opportunities that often-times change our lives, but even this important endeavor must be undertaken in a fiscally responsible way in our current economic environment.”
Notable were Brooks’ comments on the foundation’s merit review process, a topic of a July 2011 hearing by the subcommittee:
“Through what many consider the gold-standard of merit-review processes, the National Science Foundation has played a vital role in funding basic research crucial to the economic security and international competitiveness of the United States for over 60 years now. As most in this room know, NSF is the primary source of federal government support for non-health-related research and development at America’s colleges and universities.”
The subcommittee’s Ranking Member, Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) took a different approach in his opening remarks, commenting on the doubling of the foundation’s budget:
“In this challenging fiscal environment it is our job to make tough choices and to set priorities. I feel strongly that we need to prioritize investments that deliver real returns to taxpayers and boost our economic competitiveness. As a result I am pleased that the Administration’s FY13 budget request continues to emphasize science, innovation, and STEM education generally, and the National Science Foundation in particular.
“But I think it is also important for me to urge everyone to be realistic about the notion of doubling the NSF’s budget, and focus instead on maintaining a sustainable, predictable path of growth. While I do think that doubling funding would yield enormous dividends for our country, I think that we should all recognize that aspirations that ignore the reality of our budget deficit are not particularly helpful to the agency or the scientific community. Predictability will help our research institutions to plan, while helping our scientists avoid the booms and busts that have driven some of our brightest minds out of the lab. In my view the President’s FY13 request for the NSF strikes a good balance.”
Concluding his remarks, Lipinski cautioned:
“In closing, I have to say that the increase in your budget request makes it easier for you to dream big and for me to offer mostly positive comments. But, unfortunately, I think it’s unlikely that Congress will be able to match your request when we eventually pass a budget. As I indicated at the outset, I believe that strong and sustained investments in the NSF, STEM education, and innovation generally are critical for our nation’s future. My colleagues in Congress have, on a bipartisan basis, historically agreed with me, and I hope that will continue to be the case. I think this type of investment is critical to the future growth of our country.”
NSF requested a 4.8 percent or $340 million increase, in its budget for next year to $7.4 billion.
The ninety-minute hearing was fairly low-key, with discussion about NSF’s role in advanced manufacturing; returning and retaining manufacturing positions in the U.S.; the foundation’s Innovation Corps Program launched last summer); federal support for basic and applied research; community colleges; and NSF’s Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program. When asked by Brooks where the foundation could make additional cuts beyond the $67 million it recommended in its request, both Suresh and Bowen could not offer a ready answer. The only subcommittee member to question the request was Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) who pointedly questioned how the foundation was forced to make tough choices since it had requested a 5 percent increase. Suresh responded by noting the 20 percent success rate for funding proposals, and Chinese and European Union increases in S&T funding. In a second round of questions, Harris was more satisfied when Suresh responded to a question about the rising cost of gasoline by describing a materials research program.
On March 6, Suresh appeared before the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee. This subcommittee has direct responsibility for the foundation’s FY2013 budget. Suresh received a warm welcome from this subcommittee, with chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) pointing to the 2.5 percent budget increase NSF received this year and commenting “the subcommittee is a big supporter of basic research and has worked hard to ensure that we're giving our scientific agencies adequate support even in times of fiscal restraint.” He spoke of a direct connection between research and innovation and high-paying manufacturing jobs. Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) offered similar opening remarks.
While the appropriators asked questions on many topics, three were prevalent. Suresh was asked many questions about NSF’s education programs, with the appropriators repeatedly expressing their support for the foundation. It is clear they are very concerned about STEM education in this country and look to the foundation as a major source of new approaches and ideas to improve student performance and interest. Also mentioned repeatedly were efforts to improve U.S. manufacturing and advanced manufacturing. Finally, Wolf and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) made plain their opposition to many of the actions taken by the Chinese government in areas such as cyber-security and human rights.
Running throughout this hearing were the appropriators’ supportive remarks for NSF and its programs. Culberson, a fiscal conservative, observed that Wolf and Fattah were “working arm in arm with every one of us that made sure that NSF was protected in this last difficult year for budgets.”
Toward the end of the hearing, Culberson told Suresh “this will likely be a particularly brutal budget environment this year for the entire country. And you know how devoted the chairman is, and Mr. Fattah, [and] the whole subcommittee to NSF and science funding.” He later added, “We'll do our best to help communicate that to our colleagues and to the country in this difficult time, that there is no better investment in the future of the nation than in pure scientific research encumbered by politics.”
Note: Selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.