Senate Science and Space Subcommittee Raises Questions on NSF's Research

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Publication date: 
8 May 2006

Last week's hearing by the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee revealed considerable Member support for the National Science Foundation, but also misgivings about some of the research sponsored by the agency.

The May 2 hearing was chaired by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and featured NSF Director Arden Bement, Jr.; National Science Board Chairman Warren Washington; AAAS CEO Alan Leshner; and University of South Carolina Professor Jerome Odom. Hutchison opened the hearing by saying that American science and engineering is entering a period of rejuvenation, and highlighted the importance of the NAS "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report. She reaffirmed her support for the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) and the Senate PACE legislation. Hutchison praised what she characterized as the foundation's focus on "hard science," engineering, technology, and innovation, and spoke of her interest in ensuring that NSF maintain this focus.

Also attending this hearing was Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK). Stevens said he was "quite moved" by the NAS report, and described his concerns about competition from India and China and resulting job losses. The chairman discussed his intention for the Senate to meet the recommended NAS report goals. "We have to light a fire," he said, noting seeming American complacency about its S&T position in the world.

Hutchison's questions at this hearing largely revolved around the research supported by the foundation's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. According to its FY 2007 budget submission, "SBE is a principal source of federal support for fundamental research on human cognition, behavior, social structures, and social interaction, as well as for research on the intellectual and social contexts that govern the development and use of science and technology. Overall, SBE accounts for about half of federal support for basic research in the social sciences at U.S. academic institutions (reported by all federal agencies for FY 2003). In some fields, including anthropology, archaeology, political science, linguistics, non-medical sociology, and the social aspects of psychology, SBE is the predominant or exclusive source of federal basic research support." SBE's FY 2007 budget request is $213.8 million; about 3.6% of the total NSF request of $6,020.2 million.

While saying that they were interesting research topics, Hutchison asked, if in light of the foundation's critical role in the American Competitiveness Initiative, SBE studies on voter behavior, presidential veto threats, and international issues were the best use of NSF resources, and wanted to know if a reassessment of the agency's mission was in order. Bement responded by explaining that some of the directorate's research had "very high economic returns for the nation," and that the foundation has a broad mission of supporting all fields of science. He explained that a grant title often does not fully explain its research. Hutchison repeated her assertion that the SBE research was interesting, but that it was not part of the objective to double "hard science" funding, calling NSF the engine that will drive the ACI.

Stevens asked NSB Chairman Washington about the poor performance of American high school seniors on international assessment tests. Washington agreed that "we aren't doing a good job," but cautioned that there was no single answer to boosting U.S. performance. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), after describing his concerns about China and India's recent S&T advances, asked why total NSF funding in real dollars for the Education and Human Resources Directorate was 20% less than what it was in 2004 (as noted in Leshner's testimony.) The foundation requested a 2.5% increase for EHR in FY 2007. Bement replied that not all of the agency's education programs were confined to EHR, citing educational components in programs supported by the Research and Related Activities budget.

Senator John Sununu (R-NH) also questioned NSF's support of research in areas such as neuroscience, psychology, and mental health. That is the NIH mission, he said, also citing NASA and USDA research programs that appear to overlap with NSF. Sununu also wanted to know why NSF is involved in K-12 science education programs, saying that was the mission of the Department of Education. He said it was "very difficult to feel comfortable and confident" with some aspects of NSF's mission. Sununu was not persuaded that a reason for supporting NSF research is the creation of new jobs, contending that was the purpose of venture capitalists. Sununu reaffirmed his support for the doubling of NSF funding over ten years, but clearly believes it should be targeted.

Hutchison then repeated that the U.S. was on the verge of a major initiative, and wants NSF "to be "meticulous on focusing on that initiative." When she asked Bement if he will keep the foundation's focus on physical sciences and engineering, he replied that he would. After asking several questions about coordination of NSF and NASA research, Hutchison told Bement that the foundation has a great reputation for supporting highly respected research, was critical to the training of the next generation of scientists, and should not dissipate or waste its resources. Hutchison said the objective of this hearing was to ensure that the NSF continues to do what it does best.

Leshner and Odom then took the witness table. In his prepared testimony, Leshner said "AAAS recognizes, as does the Administration in its budget proposal for NSF, the importance of a broad, balanced portfolio of R&D investments. The need for strong support across all scientific fields comes both from the increasing interdependence of physical, biological, behavioral, and social sciences, and from the importance of all these fields to innovation and to the improvement of the economy, health and quality of life of all Americans." While appreciative of the requested increases, he said even greater funding was justified since NSF cannot fund many of the proposals that it receives. When asked by Hutchison if NSF's research portfolio is balanced, Leshner replied that support should be given across the entire spectrum, as critical questions facing Americans are increasingly seen as multidisciplinary in nature. Hutchison did not seem to be convinced, and when Odom spoke of the importance of societal factors in advancing fields such as nanotechnology, Hutchison said "I respectfully disagree," again voicing her concerns that such research would crowd out funding for physical sciences and engineering research. Hutchinson, who also sits on the Appropriations Committee (as does Stevens) concluded by saying that she wants the foundation to be a "lean, mean, fighting machine" to advance the goals of the ACI, and wants to ensure that "we remain on target."

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