In a largely friendly, though occasionally combative, hearing, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee examined the Obama Administration’s FY 2012 budget requests for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in a hearing on March 11. The witnesses were: Subra Suresh, Director of the NSF; Ray Bowen, Chairman of the National Science Board; and Patrick Gallagher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and Director of NIST.
Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) set the tone in his opening statement, saying, “There is no denying that both of these agencies make vital contributions to our Nation’s competitiveness, and this Committee has a long, bipartisan record of support for these agencies and their contributions.”
Hall voiced some concern about the 13 percent increase requested for NSF in a time of tight budgets, but expressed strong overall support and appreciation for the missions carried out by NSF and NIST.
Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), in her opening statement, said that NSF and NIST are “key to our ability to spur innovation and improve STEM education in this country. I’m pleased to see that the President’s budget request shares this Committee’s goal, as reflected in the America COMPETES Act and the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, of doubling the budgets of these agencies, and laying a strong foundation for our Nation’s future competitiveness.”
In his questions to Suresh, Hall inquired as to how many jobs were created by NSF’s portion of funds allocated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Suresh replied that given the longer-term nature of scientific research grants, it is too early to judge job creation. However, he said that based on past success, they expect significant payoffs.
Sparks flew during sharp questioning by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who asked Suresh about a $171,000 grant NSF gave to a New York theater company to stage a play about climate change. Rohrabacher asked whether this was an appropriate use of NSF funding. Suresh replied that, while he has not seen the play in question, NSF has an important responsibility to present science to the public.
Rohrabacher suggested that this play exceeded that role and was intended to “propagandize” the public on a particular view of climate change. Addressing Suresh, Rohrabacher said, “I would suggest you take a very close look at that and do not repeat that and come back to us to expect us to take your opinion seriously if you are funding this type of nonsense.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) asked about a letter she received from research universities in her state that expressed concern about the 5.2% cut below the FY 2010 enacted level that NSF would face if H.R. 1 was signed into law. Bowden and Suresh said that, were these cuts enacted, they would result in far fewer grants and limit advances in basic research. According to Suresh, the cuts would lead to 500 fewer grant awards and 5,500 fewer people supported when compared to the FY 2010 enacted level.
Freshmen Committee members Mo Brooks (R-AL), who serves as Chair of the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, Dan Benishek (R-MI), and Andy Harris (R-MD) spent the bulk of their question time raising their concerns about the federal deficit. They expressed dismay that the Administration would request a 13 percent increase for NSF in light of the larger financial situation.
After the Committee recessed for scheduled votes on the House floor, the hearing resumed with Gallagher’s testimony, which stressed the importance of NIST’s mission “to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness through measurement science, standards and technology.”
Hall questioned the $13 million in NIST’s budget request devoted to net zero energy buildings research and asked why NIST is doing this work instead of the Department of Energy. Gallagher replied that DOE plays a role in research efforts, but much of the work is happening in industry, and NIST is playing a coordinating role.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) was enthusiastic in her praise of NIST. She said, “When I’ve visited, I’ve learned so much… I would point particularly to the center for nanoscale science and technology, which is doing some of the cutting edge research… that really [is] the game-changer for the future.”
To illustrate the success of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), Edwards spoke of several companies in her district that had directly benefitted. One, a small custom antenna design, manufacturing, and testing company, had seen an increase of $1.2 million in sales as a result of a partnership with the University of Maryland supported by NIST. Edwards also said that across the state of Maryland, companies had reaped $291 million in benefits and were able to create 1,400 jobs due to relatively small investments and support from NIST.