Senior officials of the National Science Foundation testified before the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday of last week. The three-hour hearing was relatively low-key, with subcommittee members expressing strong bipartisan support for NSF. While Members asked some questions about NSF's programs and operations, they were more generally concerned about larger science policy issues.
Subcommittee chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV) opened the hearing by describing the foundation’s FY 2009 budget request as a “mixed bag.” While it would put NSF back on the ten-year doubling track, the request fell short of the level authorized in the America COMPETES legislation passed last year, he said. He added that some amounts within the overall request were less than what was authorized in the COMPETES legislation. Mollohan had “some anxiety” that selected fields, such as the physical sciences, were slated to receive larger budget increases than others. Mollohan expressed concern about the requests for EPSCoR and the Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.
Ranking Republican Member Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said it was obvious that science was at the very top of the Administration’s budget priorities, but warned that funding constraints would make it difficult to provide the full 13.6 percent requested increase. He was pleased that the Administration was continuing to press for a high level of funding for the foundation. Frelinghuysen spoke very favorably about a recent trip to NSF’s South Pole research station, and of his “huge respect” for the scientists that he had met there.
National Science Board Chairman Steven Beering testified first, saying he was surprised and disappointed at the FY 2008 outcome, noting that the foundation would not even be able to keep up with inflation. Beering said the FY 2008 budget sent the wrong signal to U.S. researchers and the international community, saying it was “a dangerous time” to neglect the S&T enterprise. Both he and NSF Director Arden Bement said the FY 2009 request would get the foundation’s budget back on track.
Mollohan's first question was about the relationship between NSF and the National Science Board, asking if there were any outstanding issues. Beering said there were none. Mollohan then held up a copy of the board's "Science and Engineering Indicators 2008" report (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2008/011.html ), asking Beering and Bement what U.S. trends discussed in the report were of greatest concern. Beering replied that the K-12 STEM enterprise was most in need of improvement, warning that the U.S. was falling behind. There is, he said, "no magic wand we can wave" to bring about rapid improvement. Frelinghuysen's questions centered on education, asking what kind of impact the federal government could have in improving K-12 STEM education. Education was also the focus of questions asked by Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) and David Price (D-NC).
Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA) spoke about the level of U.S. investment, asking "are we falling way behind?" While Bement assured him that the U.S. remains the world leader in high technology investment, he quickly added that "the rate of [international] change is a little disturbing." Bement said China would close the gap with the U.S. in twenty years.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) described the NSF as being "dinged by the [FY 2008] omnibus," asking if the FY 2009 request would make up for this year's lost funding. Bement said that it would.
"We're all on the same page," declared Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who has great enthusiasm for the NSF and for science generally. A self-described fiscal conservative, Culberson said there were no partisan differences between subcommittee members over the issue of science funding. "I'm totally committed to you guys," he told Bement and Beering, adding "the answer is always 'yes.'" Culberson wants the NSF to be insulated from "politics" and "bean counters," as is the case for the Federal Reserve Bank and the General Accountability Office. At this point, Mollohan said Culberson's views reflected those of the subcommittee members, and then spoke of the "chagrin shared by every member of the subcommittee" about the FY 2008 budget.
The remainder of the hearing included discussions about the future supply and demand for STEM workers, the effectiveness of the foundation's Math and Science Partnership program, the role of the Department of Education, the International Polar Year, and the EPSCoR request. In response to a question from Frelinghuysen, Bement said that the foundation's large requested budget increases for math, physical sciences, and engineering were in recognition that funding for these fields, in constant dollars, had fallen considerably during the last decades. Bement added it was important to keep all disciplines strong.
There was some discussion at the conclusion of the hearing about the foundation's Major Research Equipment request, with chairman Mollohan asking if there were any "issues." Bement replied that NSF wanted to be "the best," in its project management. Mollohan asked if there were any troubled projects, Bement responding that there was only concern about the schedule for an ocean drilling vessel. Frelinghuysen wanted to know why the foundation's request for FY 2009 was lower; Bement responded that NSF management wanted to be fully assured about the planning for a project before requesting construction money for it.
The hearing ended with Mollohan repeating that "the final [FY 2008] result wasn't satisfying to us." National Science Board Chair Bement agreed, saying "we don't want to be hit by another bus."