House Basic Research Subcommittee Weighs NSF Budget Request

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Publication date: 
10 March 1995

The Basic Research Subcommittee of the House Science Committee,
chaired by Steven Schiff (R-NM), began its work in the 104th
Congress by holding two hearings on the National Science
Foundation's fiscal year 1996 budget request.  Schiff intends to
draft reauthorization legislation for NSF soon, and plans a third
hearing for March 21 on that issue.  Previous NSF authorizing
legislation, he noted, expired at the end of fiscal year 1993.
Authorizing legislation approves programs and funding levels, but
does not provide funding. 

Most members of the subcommittee were present on February 22 to
hear NSF Director Neal Lane testify on the Foundation's budget
request.  Almost all members had words of praise for NSF and were
pleased at the requested increase of 7.6% for Research and Related
Activities.  Robert Walker (R-PA), chairman of the full Science
Committee, said, "NSF will find many Members on the majority side,
and on the minority side, [Republican and Democratic] devoted to
the mission of basic research that NSF so capably carries out," and
Schiff added that "NSF has nothing but friends on this
subcommittee."  However, many members commented on the requested
decrease for NSF's education programs and academic facilities

Lane was asked to discuss the balances NSF strikes between research
and education, between research and facilities funding, and across
the spectrum of basic through applied research, as well as the role
of "strategic" research at NSF.  The same questions were then asked
of two panels of witnesses from academia and industry at the second
hearing on March 2.

Lane explained that the rationale for the "slight decline" in the
request for education funding represented not "a sudden lack of
interest or priority in our commitment to science and math
education," but a "time for examination and evaluation" after rapid
growth.  While agreeing that "the need really is there" for a
facilities renovation program, Lane said because NSF was "unable to
fund so many proposals that rate so highly," it was felt that
investigator-initiated research should be the top priority.  He
suggested that government and industry downsizing might create
opportunities to use underutilized facilities. 

Lane acknowledged that "NSF is strongly shifted to the fundamental
side" of the continuum of research, with "very little of what we
do" classified as applied.  But he stated that NSF did support
fundamental research in "strategic" areas.  NSF's strategic
research was investigator-initiated and peer-reviewed, he said, but
when possible the Foundation identified research as belonging to
some strategic area "to help explain to the public what the
research is for." 

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) joked about "zeroing out" the
Department of Education and giving its job to NSF; Rep. Joe Barton
(R-TX) questioned Lane about taking on some of the missions of the
Department of Energy and its national labs, or heading a national
"Department of Science."  Lane responded that part of NSF's success
is due to its relatively small size and independence.  He added
that "the science enterprise is so important to the future of this
country" that "making large changes...should be approached very

Witnesses at the March 2 hearing generally supported Lane's
testimony.  Most agreed that it was reasonable to take time to
evaluate the success of NSF's education programs, and that funding
for facilities should not come at the expense of research.  "It
would be nice to fund facilities," said James Sawyer, representing
the American Association of Engineering Societies, "but what NSF
funds is people."  He added that "it is easier for alumni to
contribute to buildings than to research grants."  Expressing
concern that many institutions would become dependent on the
federal government for facility repairs, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)
said "a well-run university should take care of its facilities."

There was consensus that distinctions between basic, strategic, and
applied research were mostly meaningless.  Roland Schmitt, Chairman
of the American Institute of Physics Governing Board, and
representing the Council of Scientific Society Presidents'
Executive Committee, stated that "These goals - knowledge and
discovery on one hand, usefulness and public good on the other -
are not at loggerheads as they are too often portrayed."  The
witnesses agreed that the merit-based competitive process enabled
NSF to fund the best and most promising research.  When asked by
Rep. William Luther (D-MN) whether a formal process was needed "to
assure the best bang for the buck" in tight financial times,
Association of American Universities President Cornelius Pings
replied "we have that formalized process -- it's called NSF and
NIH."  Rita Colwell, President of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, affirmed that "among the science community,
[NSF's process] is recognized as the most efficient dispersal of