Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren meet with key House appropriators on Wednesday to discuss the Obama Administration’s FY 2013 request for research and development programs. While there were occasional sharp questions about NASA and China, it was largely an amicable hearing.
“I have been a longtime supporter of federal R&D” Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) said as he opened the two-hour hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science. Calling investments in science programs “crucial” to the nation’s economy and national security, Wolf stated he believed in continued strong funding for these programs despite tight constraints on government spending. He said support for science and technology programs is bipartisan, although Congress may not always agree with the Administration on specific aspects of its request.
Wolf then turned to a topic that has mentioned frequently in previous hearings -- criticism of the Chinese government’s cyber-warfare, espionage, and anti-satellite programs and its human rights policies. Wolf spoke of restrictions the Appropriations Committee inserted in FY 2011 and FY 2012 legislation limiting collaborative efforts by OSTP and NASA with China.
In his written testimony, Holdren described three “jewel-in-the-crown” agencies that “have been identified as especially important to this Nation’s continued economic leadership” -- the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science, and the laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Regarding the Administration’s FY 2013 request for the three agencies, he said:
“In recognition of the immense leverage these three agencies offer and their key role in maintaining America’s preeminence in the global marketplace, Congress and this Administration have worked together to put total funding for these agencies on a doubling trajectory. New funding levels set in the Budget Control Act of 2011 mean delaying the original target completion date for doubling these budgets. But the 2013 Budget maintains the doubling commitment with a 4.3 percent increase between 2012 and 2013 for the three agencies’ combined budgets, totaling $13.1 billion. I want to emphasize that the proposed increases for these agencies are part of a fiscally responsible budget focused on deficit reduction, meaning these increases are fully offset by cuts in other programs.”
Many of the appropriators’ questions focused on requested cuts to various programs in FY 2013. Wolf and other Members asked about proposed reductions in NASA’s Planetary Science Program, especially the decision not to move forward with the European Space Agency in two Mars missions. “We are not by any means abandoning our committee to the exploration of Mars” Holdren told the subcommittee, repeatedly mentioning the “tough choices” the Administration made to develop a budget request with the same amount of overall funding that there was in FY 2011. “If we could spend more money we could do more,” he said. Wolf was also concerned about two delays during the last six months for Soyuz trips to the International Space Station, and asked if the station did not have a crew for two months if it would be lost. Without getting into specifics, Holdren acknowledged there was a “vulnerability,” and spoke of the importance of getting the commercial crew program on a fast track. He pointed out that the Bush Administration had made the decision to retire the space shuttle for reasons that the Obama Administration also agreed with. Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) also expressed concerns about changes in the Mars exploration program and said the committee would be exploring its options.
The next two rounds of questions also centered on NASA. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) called it “very frustrating and disappointing” that NASA did not receive “one dime” of additional funding in the 2009 economic stimulus bill. He criticized both the Obama and Bush administrations for not providing the agency with more money. Echoing Wolf’s opening remarks, Culberson said there are “no party labels when it comes to support of science on this subcommittee.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who represents the district where the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is located, was very critical of the Administration’s request to reduce funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Program. Schiff explained he was “deeply troubled” by the proposed science budget, including the $309 million reduction to the Planetary Science budget, and the threat it posed to the laboratory’s workforce. He said the new request cannibalizes some programs in favor of others, resulting in an unbalanced request that “basically shafts Planetary Science.” Schiff pledged to fight the proposed reduction “tooth and nail.” “I can’t tell you how distressed I am” Schiff concluded.
Holdren replied that he understood Schiff’s frustration, saying that he wished it was otherwise but a flat overall federal budget forced reductions in some programs. Schiff responded that Chairman’s Wolf prediction from last year that the additional funding required for the James Webb Space Telescope would result in cuts to other programs was correct. Holdren responded that the funding needed to develop the Space Launch System and the Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle had a significant budgetary impact, as well as less than requested FY 2012 funding for the commercial crew program. With funding so tight and program budgetary needs so great, “somebody’s ox is going to get gored” Holdren said.
At this point Wolf asked if a way could be found to reduce the cost of the commercial crew program by having private companies work together, a question Holdren said he would pass along to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. A final comment came from Fattah who said that under the current budget structure it was “impossible” to provide optimal funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System and Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle, an aggressive Mars exploration program, and other programs.
Other questions during the hearing were asked about the competitive process at the National Science Foundation (with Holdren commenting that Director Subra Suresh “is doing a fabulous job”), semiconductor manufacturing, STEM education, federal nanotechnology programs, public access to research results (Holdren commenting that two task forces are now examining this matter), weather satellites (Holdren saying “we inherited a mess at NPOESS” and acknowledging that there will be a “very unfortunate” gap in coverage), exoscale computing, and efforts to return manufacturing jobs to the United States. In sum, it was a good hearing on the Administration’s FY 2013 research and development budget request, with Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) commenting “It’s really us in the Congress that determines funding levels.” Honda is correct: the FY 2013 ball is now in the Congress’ court.