The House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education of the House Science and Technology Committee held a friendly and low-key hearing earlier this month to review the National Science Foundation’s FY 2011 budget request. The subcommittee members, led by its Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Ranking Member Vern Ehlers (R-MI), were supportive of NSF’s programs and the FY 2011 request, with most questions revolving around the foundation’s efforts to strengthen K-12 education and to reach out to underrepresented populations.
Testifying at the 90-minute hearing were National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement and National Science Board Chairman Steven Beering. Both are retiring within the next few months. Also retiring at the end of this session of Congress are Ehlers, Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA), and full committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN).
“I was very pleased to see the strong increases for NSF being proposed in the President’s budget, especially in these tough budget times,” Lipinski said in his opening remarks. The Administration requested an 8.0 percent increase for NSF in FY 2011. The chairman was less pleased with the 2.2 percent requested increase for the foundation’s Education and Human Resources Directorate, saying “I worry about both the statement being made by the request and the consequences of flat funding [when adjusted for inflation] would have for NSF’s excellent programs.” Lipinski also questioned if enough was being spent to modernize academic research infrastructure, and wanted to know why the proposed nanotechnology budget would be reduced.
In his opening remarks, Ehlers praised the Administration’s plan to keep NSF’s budget on a doubling track, which he said has had a “bumpy start” in the last few years. He was “very disappointed” with the request for K-12 STEM education, and described the important differences there are between the foundation’s programs and those of the Department of Education. Ehlers contends that the FY 2011 request does not give sufficient emphasis to K-12 education.
Director Bement’s oral testimony outlined the foundation’s programs and noted that the request maintains the doubling track for its budget. He spoke of “tough choices and clear priorities” that were made in formulating the request, a point that he returned to later in the hearing. NSB Chairman Beering described some of the findings in “Science and Engineering Indicators 2010" regarding gains that other nations, particularly China and other East Asian countries, have made in science and technology. These advances should not be viewed negatively, he said, but rather as a reminder why the U.S. needs to maintain robust S&T investments.
Members’ questions touched on a range of issues, including science diplomacy and international partnerships, and the respective roles of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. There was further discussion about the foundation’s activities to strengthen the future STEM workforce through its K-12 and graduate fellowship programs. Bement argued that previous Education and Human Resources appropriations, Research and Related Activities’ education spending, and economic stimulus funding had resulted in an average 8.5 percent annual increase in education funding during the last four years. He said it is “prudent” to pause for an evaluation of the foundation’s education programs, a point that he made to Senate appropriators in March 2008. There was also discussion about NSF programs to encourage underrepresented populations to pursue STEM careers, energy and climate change research, the evaluation of NSF’s programs, and support for high risk/high return research.
Lipinski asked about NSF’s support of university research infrastructure, a subject his subcommittee held a hearing on last month. One review estimates that academic institutions have deferred $3.5 billion in needed renovations. When Lipinski asked Bement if NSF’s funding should increase, Bement replied “my judgement is we are pretty good shape,” saying other NSF priorities were more important. Among those priorities are increasing the number of proposals funded, grant sizes, and fellowship allotments. “My preference is to keep the research strong,” he concluded.
As the hearing drew to an end, Lipinski asked Bement and Beering if they had any concluding comments. Beering spoke of a series of seminars and hearings that he chaired on K-12 education, and said:
“I think what it all comes down to is that we need to invest in people with ideas who have a passion for science and education and who are broadly gauged in their views, who have vision, and who have the steadfastness to pursue that vision. And I’m just delighted with the way that we are doing right now. Things are really moving in a very productive direction. And I’m strengthened in that belief because of the marvelous staff that we have at NSF and the very imaginative work that is going on throughout the enterprise. I am very optimistic about the future, and I think we are going to continue to do well.”