OSTP Director Holdren Testifies Before Key House Appropriators

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Publication date: 
2 March 2012

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.

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