House Hearings on FY 2013 National Science Foundation Budget Request

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Publication date: 
12 March 2012

Almost  without exception, members of the House appropriations and authorization  committees expressed strong bipartisan support for the FY 2013 request for the  National Science Foundation.  As has been  true in previous years, NSF’s budget for next year will likely be shaped more  by overall funding constraints than by the particulars of the foundation’s  request.

NSF  Director Subra Suresh and National Science Board Chairman Ray Bowen appeared before  the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on  Research and Science Education on February 28.   Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) opened the hearing by heavily  criticizing the Administration’s overall FY 2013 request, calling it “an  irresponsible pie-in-the-sky wish list.”    He was, however, far more  supportive of the federal government’s role in the support of basic research:

“While  my colleagues and I may disagree on the best priorities for federal research  dollars, I am sure that we can all agree that support for basic research is  important and essential to our economy. Basic research is an investment in  America’s future. It is a productive, ‘job creator.’ The fruits of that research  create jobs and opportunities that often-times change our lives, but even this  important endeavor must be undertaken in a fiscally responsible way in our  current economic environment.”

Notable  were Brooks’ comments on the foundation’s merit review process, a topic of a  July 2011 hearing by the subcommittee:

“Through  what many consider the gold-standard of merit-review processes, the National  Science Foundation  has played a vital role in funding basic research crucial to the economic  security and international  competitiveness of the United States for over 60 years now. As most in this  room       know,  NSF is the primary source of federal government support for non-health-related  research       and  development at America’s colleges and universities.”

The  subcommittee’s Ranking Member, Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) took a different approach  in his opening remarks, commenting on the doubling of the foundation’s budget:

“In  this challenging fiscal environment it is our job to make tough choices and to  set priorities. I feel strongly that we need to prioritize investments that  deliver real returns to taxpayers and boost our economic competitiveness. As a  result I am pleased that the Administration’s FY13 budget request continues to  emphasize science, innovation, and STEM education generally, and the National  Science Foundation in particular.

“But  I think it is also important for me to urge everyone to be realistic about the  notion of doubling the NSF’s budget, and focus instead on maintaining a  sustainable, predictable path of growth. While I do think that doubling funding  would yield enormous dividends for our country, I think that we should all  recognize that aspirations that ignore the reality of our budget deficit are  not particularly helpful to the agency or the scientific community. Predictability  will help our research institutions to plan, while helping our scientists avoid  the booms and busts that have driven some of our brightest minds out of the  lab. In my view the President’s FY13 request for the NSF strikes a good  balance.”

Concluding  his remarks, Lipinski cautioned:

“In  closing, I have to say that the increase in your budget request makes it easier  for you to dream big and for me to offer mostly positive comments. But,  unfortunately, I think it’s unlikely that Congress will be able to match your  request when we eventually pass a budget. As I indicated at the outset, I  believe that strong and sustained investments in the NSF, STEM education, and innovation  generally are critical for our nation’s future. My colleagues in Congress have,  on a bipartisan basis, historically agreed with me, and I hope that will  continue to be the case. I think this type of investment is critical to the  future growth of our country.”

NSF  requested  a 4.8 percent or $340 million  increase, in its budget for next year to $7.4 billion. 

The  ninety-minute hearing was fairly low-key, with discussion about NSF’s role in  advanced manufacturing; returning and retaining manufacturing positions in the  U.S.; the foundation’s Innovation Corps Program launched last summer); federal  support for basic and applied research; community colleges; and NSF’s Science,  Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program.    When asked by Brooks where the foundation could make additional cuts beyond the  $67 million it recommended in its request, both Suresh and Bowen could not  offer a ready answer.  The only subcommittee  member to question the request was Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) who pointedly questioned  how the foundation was forced to make tough choices since it had requested a 5  percent increase.  Suresh responded by  noting the 20 percent success rate for funding proposals, and Chinese and  European Union increases in S&T funding.    In a second round of questions, Harris was more satisfied when Suresh  responded to a question about the rising cost of gasoline by describing a  materials research program.  

On  March 6, Suresh appeared before the House Commerce, Justice, and Science  Appropriations Subcommittee.  This  subcommittee has direct responsibility for the foundation’s FY2013 budget.  Suresh received a warm welcome from this  subcommittee, with chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) pointing to the 2.5 percent budget  increase NSF received this year and commenting “the subcommittee is a big  supporter of basic research and has worked hard to ensure that we're giving our  scientific agencies adequate support even in times of fiscal restraint.”   He spoke of a direct connection between  research and innovation and high-paying manufacturing jobs.  Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) offered  similar opening remarks.

While  the appropriators asked questions on many topics, three were prevalent.  Suresh was asked many questions about NSF’s  education programs, with the appropriators repeatedly expressing their support  for the foundation.  It is clear they are  very concerned about STEM education in this country and look to the foundation  as a major source of new approaches and ideas to improve student performance  and interest.  Also mentioned repeatedly  were efforts to improve U.S. manufacturing and advanced manufacturing.  Finally, Wolf and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) made  plain their opposition to many of the actions taken by the Chinese government  in areas such as cyber-security and human rights. 

Running  throughout this hearing were the appropriators’ supportive remarks for NSF and  its programs.  Culberson, a fiscal  conservative, observed that Wolf and Fattah were “working arm in arm with every  one of us that made sure that NSF was protected in this last difficult year for  budgets.”  

Toward  the end of the hearing, Culberson told Suresh “this will likely be a  particularly brutal budget environment this year for the entire country. And  you know how devoted the chairman is, and Mr. Fattah, [and] the whole  subcommittee to NSF and science funding.” He later added, “We'll do our best to  help communicate that to our colleagues and to the country in this difficult  time, that there is no better investment in the future of the nation than in  pure scientific research encumbered by politics.”

Note:  Selections  are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.