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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on VA/HUD Hearing on NSF Appropriations/OSTP

May 4, 2000

Chairman Kit Bond (R-M) opened the hearing on NSF's budget request by noting that "federal investment in science is critical for our economic well-being," and that he is "intrigued" by the Administration's FY01 request for NSF. The requested 17.3 percent increase of $675 million would raise the foundation's budget to $4.57 billion. "There is nothing I would rather do," he said, than to convince his colleagues to support NSF's "vastly needed" request.

He also called on NSF to increase public awareness of biotechnology, saying the debate over its safety is being driven by "fear instead of reason." He said that a better-educated public would recognize the safety of bioengineered foods.

Sen. Bond noted that the salary and expenses (S&E) part of NSF's budget remains flat, despite increasing program responsibilities. This is a "flashing light," he said, and it raises concern as to whether the agency can cope with its growth. In regard to the nanotechnology initiative, he and Sen. Mikulski both asked for assurances that multiagency efforts will be well-coordinated and will not come at the expense of existing programs.

He noted that the Administration "ignored" the Office of Innovation Partnerships and requested flat funding for EPScOR. He is troubled by this and worries that smaller research institutions will suffer. He applauded efforts to help tribal colleges but said other minority institutions need more support.

Sen. Mikulski (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee, called NSF's request "significant and fitting" for its 50th anniversary. She described how Vannevar Bush failed for five years to gain approval for creation of NSF, as legislative debate centered on whether the foundation should focus on basic or applied research. She claimed this is an "artificial issue" that persists.

Dr. Rita Colwell, Director of NSF, thanked the Senators for their "consistent bipartisan support" before introducing Dr. Eamon M. Kelly, Chairman of the National Science Board. In his testimony, Dr. Kelly called science and technology "the keystone to an $8.5 trillion economy" and noted that NSF's request represents only about 25 percent of the overall Federal R&D budget. The increase for NSF would "restore some essential balance" to that portfolio, he said.

Dr. Colwell said the request would keep the U.S. at the leading edge of science and discovery. NSF will emphasize multidisciplinary programs in information technology, biocomplexity, workforce issues, and nanotechnology. Regarding biocomplexity, she quoted the naturalist John Muir: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Understanding those relationships, she said, is the key to unlocking biotechnology's usefulness.

She showed a videotape of IMAX footage filmed where deep-sea hydrothermal vents create highly toxic conditions. Despite the heat and chemicals produced by these vents, over 300 identified species live under these conditions, without benefit of photosynthesis. These lifeforms survive through chemical synthesis of hydrogen sulfide emitted by the vents. There are indications that these springs could actually have been the birthplace of all life on Earth.

Dr. Colwell said that half of NSF's request will go to core disciplines. She believes that the S&E budget will permit the foundation to maintain an "excellent staff."

Dr. Lane called the request "historic and balanced" and said that the Administration is dedicated to building bipartisan support. Regarding the need for coordination of multiagency programs like IT and nanotech, he said the the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee's 1999 report had served a "wakeup call" that prompted a cohesive strategy implemented through the National Coordinating Office. He said a similar strategy is being pursued for nanotech research, whose importance has been cited by the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Regarding OSTP's own management, Dr. Lane said its $5 million staffing budget is "flat" and calls for 42 full-time equivalent employees. The office requests only a 2 percent overall increase.

During a question period, Sen. Bond questioned the wisdom of doubling the National Institutes of Health budget without doing more for NSF. He asked the foundation to articulate a "vision" that he could promote with his colleagues. Dr. Colwell stated that NIH's funding is "great," but that math and science are the underpinning of health research. Dr. Lane said that NIH's recent funding increases match growth in the Growth Domestic Product, but that the supporting sciences continue to be underfunded. Outgoing NIH director Harold Varmas has himself noted this, Dr. Lane said. He stated that half of the U.S. economic growth in the past 50 years has come from basic science, as opposed to biomedicine.

Sen. Mikulksi said that K-12 education needs NSF support. She said that NSF equipment funding is key to smaller colleges, which are "incubators" for women and minorities. Dr. Colwell pointed to the GK12 fellowships, which fund about 100 graduate students per year to work with younger students in school systems across the U.S. She said that NSF's budget has $50 million for equipment at four-year universities, but that amount should be doubled. To balance distribution of these funds, each institution may submit only two such proposals per year. In a recent study of peer review across the foundation, it was shown that over half of proposals rated "very good" didn't receive NSF funds.

Sen. Bond asked whether NSF is following PITAC's recommendation to make larger, longer grants, with funding for "risky" projects. Dr. Colwell said the foundation is doing just that, with IT Research grant reviews now in full swing. She called the quality of proposals "extraordinary."

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