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NSF & Congress


Dr. Rita Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation

Before the House Appropriations Committee
Subcommittee on VA/HUD and Independent Agencies
March 4, 1999

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Mollohan, members of the Subcommittee, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify on the budget request for Fiscal Year 2000 for the National Science Foundation.

I begin by noting that this hearing is a first for many of us, Mr. Chairman: it is my first appearance before the VA/HUD subcommittee and it is the first NSF hearing for you as Chairman and for Mr. Mollohan as Ranking Minority Member. It is also the first appearance before the subcommittee of my good friend and colleague Dr. Eamon Kelly, Chairman of the National Science Board.

As we begin our tenures together, let me say that I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, and all members of the subcommittee to help strengthen our nation's investment in fundamental science and engineering.

Before I turn to details of the NSF budget request, I'd like to say a few words about how NSF fits into the overall R&D environment of our country.

Dr. Kelly has touched on some important trends in fundamental R&D in recent NSB reports. Let me mention one other long-term research trend that is causing concern among many in the science community.

NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies has taken a close look at the mix of Federal research funding across different fields of science and engineering.

Over the past 25-plus years, the mix has changed significantly and dramatically -- primarily through gains in biomedical fields and declines in the physical sciences and engineering.

  • In 1970, the life sciences accounted for 29 percent of Federal research spending. By 1997, their share had risen to 43 percent. Put another way, the share increased by half.

  • Engineering, by contrast, saw its share decline by 12 percentage points over the same period, falling from 31 percent to 19 percent of the Federal research portfolio.

  • The share going to the physical sciences dropped by more than 5 points -- from 19 percent to 14 percent of the total portfolio.

The combination effect is just as significant. Engineering and the physical sciences -- taken together -- accounted for 50 percent of federal research spending in 1970.

That's down to 33 percent today -- a drop from half of the total to just one third.

The sharp nature of the shift in funding toward the biomedical fields has taken more than a few people by surprise.

I'd be the first to tell you about the great things that are happening in biomedical fields. Some of that funding has gone to my own research. But, I also know that society cannot live by biomedical bread alone.

This trend in fact concerns many in the medical sciences. NIH Director Harold Varmus discussed it in a speech last year. Dr. Varmus, much to his credit, took the bull by the horns and talked about the dependence of biology and medicine on other fields of science. In his words:

"Most of the revolutionary changes that have occurred in biology and medicine are rooted in new methods. Those, in turn, are usually rooted in fundamental discoveries in many different fields."

He then went on to cite laser surgery, CAT scans, fiber optic viewing, ECHO cardiography, and fetal sonograms as examples of these revolutionary advances.

This brings us to the FY 2000 request for NSF, and the need for increased investment in research and education. NSF is the fulcrum for all of science and engineering.

NSF is the only agency whose mission covers research in all fields of science and engineering, as well as education at all levels -- cradle to grave. We support the fundamental work that benefits the mission agencies right down the line.

For this reason, it is important that NSF continue to support investments that reach all fields and disciplines, which is the governing philosophy of our FY 2000 request.

Let me turn now to the budget. NSF is fast closing in on a $4 billion milestone.

The FY 2000 request comes to $3.95 billion, which represents a 5.8 percent increase over the current level. This is an outstanding request given the constraints imposed by the discretionary spending caps.

The Administration agreed with us when we said loudly and clearly that research investments deserve the highest priority. The positive response we got is reflected in an 8 percent increase for research project support.

The headliner in this budget is the new initiative in information technology. The rationale is clear.

As Internet growth has gone through the roof, IT has become the essential fuel for the nation's economic engine.

The numbers speak for themselves. The latest estimates show that IT has generated one-third of the recent growth in the U.S. economy. It now accounts for 7.4 million jobs...and it pays wages that are 60 percent higher than the private sector average.

The challenge now is to sustain this record of success.

You may be familiar with the recent report by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee -- PITAC for short. PITAC concluded that federal support for long-term research on information technology has been "dangerously inadequate." In its words "support in most critical areas has been flat or declining for nearly a decade, while the importance of IT to our economy has increased dramatically."

This has led to the government-wide initiative: Information Technology for the 21st Century -- IT2 as it's called.

Across the government, IT2 will total $366 million across six agencies.

Sixty percent of this will go to support university-based research. That's the real win-win for America. The academic research investment serves double duty, as it armors and enables students with advanced IT skills.

NSF is the lead agency for IT2. This was recommended last fall by PITAC, and we are glad to accept this responsibility and challenge.

We'll be putting $146 million into our part of IT2, which will cover three sets of activities.

First is fundamental IT research -- at $100 million. This will focus on a key assessment from PITAC's report.

For all of our ability to push the high-end in computing, no one really understands how all the pieces work together. The need right now is to improve both reliability and performance. We can achieve this by understanding how systems interact and gaining new knowledge of the working whole.

  • The request also includes $36 million for a terascale computing system. This will serve computer scientists and the entire science and engineering community.

  • Finally, we'll take advantage of the fact that NSF's portfolio includes both the information sciences and the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. There is $10 million for research on the societal, ethical, and workforce impacts of emerging technologies.

When people ask me, why NSF and the United States should invest in information technologies -- and why now -- I say it is an absolute must.

It's not a national initiative, it's a national imperative. It's a classic example of a long- term investment in fundamental research that works for the common good, in fact, for the global good.

IT2 is an investment that will strengthen the entire research and education enterprise. It will deliver tools and capabilities that will benefit every field, every discipline, and every level of education.

When we bring faster computers to weather forecasting, we save lives, we protect buildings and crops, and more -- by getting better advance warning of El Niño, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe events. My own research on climate and infectious diseases (El Niño and cholera) has made this dramatically clear to me.

The possibilities are limitless. We tackle the toughest challenges in science and engineering, and we put high octane fuel in this great engine of job creation and growth.

This same sense of imperative comes through in a second initiative presented in the request. This one is in the area we call biocomplexity.

Biocomplexity is a multidisciplinary approach to understanding our world's environment. For generations, scientists have studied parts of our environmental system -- individual species and habitats -- in isolation. Now it is time for a better understanding of how those parts function together as a whole.

This will not be easy. Taken separately, these parts are very complex. Biocomplexity is about looking at phenomena, whether they be weather or proteins or human society, at many scales. Such a viewpoint will let us identify the principles and patterns that operate at multiple levels of organization in the earth's systems, and across time and space.

Because of our planet's biocomplexity, organisms and entire ecosystems in one region can be influenced dramatically by physical and chemical changes occurring thousands of miles away. For example, wildfires in the western U.S. affect fisheries half a world away. Mercury from very hot wildfires can be blown aloft by high level winds and fall into rivers and lakes far away. Fish consume food contaminated by the mercury, presenting a human health hazard.

This is just one aspect of biocomplexity. There are many more. Around the globe, scientists in many disciplines collect and analyze environmental data on the stability of the polar ice caps, the temperatures of tropical oceans, and the health of species, forests, lakes and rivers in the United States.

Biocomplexity is about combining these efforts in a comprehensive way. It is an ambitious concept, but one that could have enormous payoffs in the years ahead.

One payoff would be better environmental decision-making on the part of governments, industries and individuals. "Ecological forecasting" -- as some call it -- could have far-reaching benefits for agriculture and other industries dependent on changes in the environment.

Another payoff could be a better handling of the difficult problem of non-native or invasive species.

One reason it's time to tackle this task is that we now have the ability, the technologies, to grasp the complexity of our environment.

From computational algorithms to mathematical models, from remote sensing to new kinds of sensors, and of course to genome sequencing and the molecular basis of metabolism and heredity...the technologies have arrived, as have the opportunities in research.

Finally, science and math education remains a priority in this budget, as it must. Last year we got the not-so-good-news about how our schools compare to other nations.

By 12th grade, our students are near the bottom. We can and must do better. The request sustains our current base of innovative activities -- and plants a few new seeds as well.

One of those promising seeds is the new Graduate Teaching Fellows program. The program may seem small at only $7.5 million, but it is an important beginning with a potential impact well beyond the dollars. It will broaden graduate education, and boost the science, engineering, and technology content in K through 12 classrooms.

I'll just mention a few other highlights before closing.

The Plant Genome Research Program will continue to increase. Its funding will increase by $5 million to a total of $55 million.

This builds on an existing research base of $20 million -- bringing the total investment to $75 million. This will provide the scientific underpinning in the future to improve nutritional content of our food crops, both in quality and yields.

A new start in the budget is the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. We are providing $8 million in FY 2000 toward a total investment of $82 million over the next five years. This is modeled after the highly successful nanofabrication network NSF began several years ago. This will lead to a national, fully-interconnected network of major earthquake research facilities.

Finally, we will be continuing investments in a number of major infrastructure projects. One is the modernization of the South Pole Station, which remains on schedule and on budget, thanks in large part to the forward funding provided by the subcommittee in past years.

That covers the basics of the budget. Let me conclude by adding that by its very timing, a budget for the first year of a new millennium takes on added significance.

That applies doubly so to NSF. The year 2000 marks the 50th Anniversary of the National Science Foundation.

Given the increase we have received in this very tight budget environment, it is clear that this is a "golden anniversary" investment. This is also an appropriate time to step back and think about the long-term importance of investments in science and engineering.

Unfortunately, our fast-paced world makes it hard for us to focus beyond today's problems and concerns. It's a challenge to make a case for investment in our children's future.

Thankfully, the VA/HUD subcommittee has taken a more long-term view, even though the payoffs from some basic research may come ten or twenty years from now.

You have consistently supported NSF's investments over the years in a bipartisan manner. For this, let me thank you again. I look forward to working with all of you to strengthen our nation's investment in the future as we approach the next millennium.

Thank you.