Chairman Boehlert Looks Back and Ahead at S&T

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Publication date: 
30 January 2003

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) addressed the University Research Associates' Annual Council of Presidents Meeting and Policy Forum this morning. Boehlert is a strong supporter of science, and is characteristically candid in his remarks. Selections from his speech follow:


"In December, with some fanfare, the President signed into law the bill to put the National Science Foundation on a track to double its budget over the next five years.

"And that law not only points the way toward more generous funding across most fields of science and engineering, the law requires NSF to develop a more transparent process for funding major research facilities, and it establishes new education programs at both the K- 12 and undergraduate levels to improve math and science education and to interest more students in those fields.

"It's a landmark measure that few in 2001 thought we could see through to fruition - truth be told, I had some skepticism myself. But we worked up until the very last minute - quite literally; it was the very last bill to pass the House last year at a little after 3 a.m."


"The poet Philip Larkin once wrote, 'Always looking to the future, we pick up bad habits of anticipation.' It's hard not to have that sober thought in mind as one prepares to lay out an agenda for the coming year, with a war looming and our fiscal straits tightening.

"But despite our challenges, and, in some ways because of them, the outlook for research and development programs in the coming year seems reasonably good.

"Now I should hasten to add that I'm making that statement at a particularly awkward time. As you are no doubt painfully aware, the President will release his budget proposal for fiscal 2004 on Monday, while Congress has yet to complete work on any civilian appropriation for fiscal 2003."

"In fact, it will be a challenge even figuring out how to read the '04 budget proposal because the Administration has had no choice but to use the President's '03 request as the program baseline. But those baseline numbers should be hopelessly out of date by the end of next week, if we can stick to our latest deadline, February 7th, when the latest Continuing Resolution expires. The latest indications are that that deadline is now a true goal and real possibility."

"In addition to confounding federal agencies and those who work with them, the stalemate over appropriations is a symptom of a larger breakdown in our lawmaking process. Increasing ideological rigidity and partisan gamesmanship, along with an electorate that is, paradoxically, both evenly divided and widely disengaged, have conspired to make it harder and harder to conduct the mundane but essential business of Congress. It's hard to predict when this state of affairs is likely to improve.

"But it's worth noting how science funding has largely stayed out of the partisan and ideological crossfire. I certainly could not get away with claiming to this audience that we are entering another 'golden age' of science funding, particularly in the physical sciences, but, again, the overall picture is far from bleak.

"The passage of our NSF bill, while not guaranteeing linear growth, is a sign that both Congress and the Administration have come to understand that broadly based increases in science spending are overdue. And while the appropriators are trimming their initial 2003 spending measures, they are trying to keep spending for NSF as high as possible. Moreover, the rumors about the President's NSF proposal for 2004 are quite promising - at least in percentage terms, which may turn out to be the key figure given the faulty baselines."


"The creation of the Department of Homeland Security could also presage increased research funding across a wide range of sciences.

"The President's proposal to create the new Department did not have a well articulated R&D focus or discrete unit with R&D responsibilities. That was a conspicuous gap because, as I never tire of pointing out, the war against terrorism will be won as much in the laboratory as on the battlefield. But led by the Science Committee, Congress created a Science and Technology Directorate, headed by an undersecretary, and including a Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA).

"And the Administration came around pretty quickly to endorsing this R&D structure and has named a top-notch nominee, Chuck McQueary, who spent much of his career at Bell Labs, to be the new undersecretary. I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. McQueary yesterday.

"It's too early to tell exactly what the new Department's R&D agenda will be or the extent to which it will be carried out at federal laboratories or at universities - although both will play a role. And, frankly, the Administration has been frustratingly closed- mouthed so far about how it is making decisions about how to structure science at the Department, but, one way or another that will change as the year goes on.

"But what seems beyond a doubt is that the new focus on homeland security will pump additional money into a wide range of science and engineering fields and into the Department of Energy, in particular, while posing questions that will require new, interdisciplinary solutions."


"There are other positive signs for the physical sciences, as well. For example, the Administration continues to highlight nanotechnology as one of its priority, interagency science initiatives - a wise decision. The Science Committee is working on legislation we hope to introduce in the next week or two and report out of Committee in late March. Our bill would give the initiative a statutory basis and clearer funding expectations, and strengthen its interagency coordination and interdisciplinary focus. Our counterparts on the Senate Commerce Committee are engaged in a similar effort, and the Administration is interested in seeing a bill signed into law this year.

"Interestingly, nanotechnology may be one of the few cases where the biological aspect of a technology is being relatively underfunded by the federal government right now. The Department of Energy, the agency that is usually the focus of this meeting, is a major player in the nanotechnology field and our bill will only underscore that further."


"But what is the outlook for DOE science as a whole? Well, while I wouldn't expect any startling increases in funding this year or next, I think the groundwork is being laid to take a serious look at the long-term needs of the Office of Science.

"First, the Office now has the magnificent leadership of Ray Orbach - - as thoughtful, inspiring and bold a director as one could hope for. Second, from global climate change to nanotechnology to supercomputing to homeland security, issues keep arising that bring the Office to the fore in science policy debates. Third, and perhaps most significantly, the Department leadership is signaling that it wants to start focusing on strengthening the Office of Science in future years. And fourth, the Office of Science should begin to benefit from the growing awareness in Washington that the physical sciences are relatively underfunded.

"Last year's ill-fated Energy Bill gave a good indication that Congress was ready to consider significant increases for the Office of Science. While the Energy Bill was stymied by major policy disputes over such issues as electric deregulation and climate change, the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis did come close to agreement on an R&D title. In fact, only one issue - whether to create a new undersecretary - remained in dispute.

"My staff spent many late nights in August and September working out the details, and we have reintroduced last year's compromise as a new bill this year, H.R.238. Our bill contains sizable increases for the Office of Science, authorizing a budget of $5 billion for fiscal 2007.

"We assume that our measure - after further negotiations - will be folded into the Energy Bill that the House hopes to pass this spring, although no part of that sentence is a 'done deal.'

"And, in fact, a lot more work will have to be done by all of us in this room, if those numbers are ever to materialize as cold, hard cash.

"Some of that work is lobbying, of course: the Office of Science's work as a whole is not widely known in Congress, and being part of the Department of Energy doesn't exactly strengthen its case in some quarters. But some of the work we need to do involves thinking - hopefully something that's not incompatible with lobbying, in any event. There are lots of tough questions that need to be answered before proposals to increase Office of Science funding can be implemented.

"What would a larger budget be used for? What should the balance be between new large-scale facilities and other ways of conducting science? What should the balance be between participating in international projects and continuing domestic ones? Which fields should be emphasized? What should the balance be between funding federal laboratories and universities? How can we assure that we have the operating funds to amortize our facility investments more fully? Do we need a new supercomputing initiative? The questions go on and on. And they're questions that we'll be pursuing in hearings this year."


"They're the kind of questions I had in mind when I promised in my last speech to you to be the scientific community's 'staunchest ally and fairest critic.' I hope I've lived up to that pledge in my first term as chairman, and I will continue to endeavor to do so. We have lots of work to do in these uncertain times."