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NSF & Congress


Dr. Rita Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation

Before the House Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Basic Research
February 16, 2000

Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Johnson, members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing. I welcome this opportunity to discuss NSF's budget request for fiscal year 2001. We believe it is truly a 21st century budget for 21st century science and engineering.

Let me briefly review the highlights of the Fiscal Year 2001 budget request.

It begins with a $2.8 billion increase in the President's 21st Century Research Fund. That's the bottom line for the core science and technology programs across the government.

A centerpiece of this investment is a $675 million increase for NSF. That's double the largest dollar increase ever proposed previously.

  • It's a jump of 17.3 percent.

  • This would put us around $4.6 billion, a pretty good number for our 50th anniversary.

  • Finally, nearly half of our increase will be money available for what we often call "core activities." There is an increase of over $300 million that is not tied to any of the focused initiatives. This will give the Foundation the flexibility we've been seeking for years.

I've always said that my biggest challenge as NSF Director is to strengthen the core science and engineering disciplines while moving forward in interdisciplinary areas.

This budget meets that challenge. It does both, and it does both very well. It is truly a 21st Century investment for 21st Century science and engineering.

Mr. Chairman, let me discuss briefly how this historic budget request came to pass.

The strong economy has been our best friend. When Alan Greenspan said, 'something special is happening in the U.S. economy' - and it's happening because of science and technology - people sat up and took notice.

That ended the argument over whether the information revolution was just a fad or was really a fundamental restructuring.

That got the attention of people, and it made it possible many of us in the scientific community, working together, to be heard and to build awareness.

All around Washington, people's eyes stopped glazing over when we presented our arguments. The key was that it was truly a team effort.

When we talked about the importance of engineering and the physical sciences to health care, people began to get the point. They know we've been saying that at NSF for years.

This year, they started to hear about it from the head of Pfizer and the head of NASDAQ - and even from the head of NIH.

We talked about the mix of public and private funding in our national portfolio and why it matters. Industry R&D may be growing at a record rate, but its dependence on public investments is growing even faster. We have the charts and the graphs with patent data and other indicators to show this.

Even better was that we have CEOs lining up with our colleagues in academe through the Council on Competitiveness and other forums.

The final push is here in the halls of Congress, where so many individual members and committees are now discussing the importance of investments in science and technology.

Of course, that's not news to members of this subcommittee, who have led the fight for basic research for many years.

A major contribution was the creation of the National Science Policy Study - shepherded by this Committee and approved by the House through the hard work of Chairman Sensenbrenner, Vice Chairman Ehlers and Former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

This study has gone a long way toward making investments in fundamental science and engineering a national, bipartisan priority.

We still have some work to do on this score, but we're getting there. It has been exciting to watch this take shape across our various communities, and I thank all of you for helping to make it happen.

This year, we'll begin to see the real rewards that come from working together.

Let me quickly review the major highlights of this year's budget.

The research account is up by almost 20%, and this will meet the challenge of strengthening the core and moving forward in emerging areas.

The EHR appropriation receives a 5.5% increase. I should add that this represents only a portion of our investment in education and learning. There are significant investments in education and learning in the Research and Related Activities Account. That is why you'll see the overall investment in education and in the 21st Workforce initiative receive much bigger increases.

Major Research Equipment gets a large increase in percentage terms, with a dollar increase of around $45 million.

And, we have also been able to provide solid increases for our administrative accounts.

Now, let me put these numbers in a more informative context.

NSF Strategic Plan

A few weeks ago, the National Science Board approved the new GPRA strategic plan for the Foundation. We've been using the plan throughout the development of this budget request.

The plan set's forth our strategic goals. We've been highlighting these for some time.

  • Ideas -- Discovery at and across the frontier of science and engineering, and connections to its use in the service of society.

  • People -- A diverse, internationally competitive and globally-engaged workforce of scientists, engineers and well-prepared citizens.

  • Tools -- Broadly accessible, state-of-the-art information bases and shared research and education tools.

All of these three goals work in concert. They reinforce each other in ways that boost U.S. leadership in all aspects of science and engineering research and education.

You'll see these goals highlighted throughout our budget documents. The different categories tell a fuller story than the appropriations accounts.

This is a budget about big ideas. Ideas are up 23% by this measure. This includes the main thrust of our funding for the initiatives - as well as the increased investment in core disciplinary research.

Think of it as a balance wheel. It gives us the means to improve grant size and duration and boost investment across the board.

Examples of investments in core research include: fundamental mathematics, functional genomics, physical, chemical and geological cycles, and research in the psychological, cognitive, and language sciences.

Investments in people: we've always said that every NSF dollar is an investment in people, and we have shown this to be the case. We cover kindergarten to career development.

This investment encompasses much of our Education and Human Resources Directorate as well as many activities funded right across the Foundation.

Across all of NSF, we support nearly 200,000 people - teachers, students, researchers, postdocs, and many others.

Tools - these are the databases, platforms, and facilities that keep us at the leading edge. There are some new starts in here that I'll be highlighting in a moment.

I also want to mention the Administration and Management line. This is more than just our salaries and expenses appropriation.

It includes investments that will aid our ability to adopt advanced information technologies, enhance customer service, and ensure financial integrity.

These investments are critical to NSF's performance as our workload increases in quantity and complexity.

NSF Initiatives

The headliners in the request are the four initiatives. Let me make one point right now about the numbers. I can see some of you running your mental calculators.

At first glance, it looks like the initiatives consumes the lion's share of the net increase. The total increase for these four initiatives is close to $500 million.

That's not the whole story, however. Even in a record-setting budget like this one - we still had to make tough decisions and realign our priorities to free up additional funds.

These four initiatives stand out as national priorities. We would have gone the extra mile to make these investments even without the boost to our bottom line.

Let me highlight the three initiatives funded from the Research and Related Activities Account. Our 21st Century Workforce Initiative and our education investments will be highlighted at a future hearing before the subcommittee.

Information Technology Research (ITR)

Let me go into detail about why these areas stand out. The Information Technology Research Initiative comes out of last year's PITAC report. NSF remains the lead agency for what is now a seven agency initiative. Participating agencies are: the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The initiative is now well underway here at NSF, and the response has been overwhelming - literally.

The first solicitation brought 2,400 pre-proposals. They came from all disciplines: not just computer science, but also mathematics, physics, psychology, the social sciences, educators, and even a number of artists as well.

That's the kind of creativity and imagination we were hoping to inspire, and that is what the nation needs.

The IT major thrusts are some of greatest challenges for all of research. I'll mention just three examples.

In the past, our system architectures could handle hundreds of processors. Now, we are working with systems of 10,000 processors.

In a very short time, we'll be hooking millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances' on to the Internet. We need new methods and theories to develop the architectures for scaling up to these levels.

Next, let's consider how we represent information. A visual bit is not the same as an audio bit or a textual bit. And, they all differ depending on the content and the context. We therefore need a new kind of information theory - one that incorporates these different kinds of information.

Finally, we have to address a range of access and workforce issues. The digital divide won't disappear on its own. Overcoming it will require innovative educational technologies, such as highly interactive computer science courseware that is multilingual, multicultural, and multimedia.

We will need the capability to operate over distributed environments such as the Internet. We'll need continued research on the social, economic, and cultural factors that affect IT usage.

These are the kinds of challenges we'll be tackling under the focus areas.

National Nanoscale Science and Engineering Initiative (NNI)

The new National Nanoscale Science and Engineering Initiative received special mention in both the President's State of the Union Address and in his speech on research funding at Caltech.

To appreciate what this is all about we need to step back for a moment.

One nanometer (one billionth of a meter) is a magical point on the dimensional scale. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems.

  • Individual atoms are around a few angstroms in diameter -- a few tenths of a nanometer.

  • DNA molecules are about 2.5 nanometers wide.

  • Biological cells, like red blood cells, have diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers. Micro-electrical mechanical systems are now approaching this same scale.

  • This means we are now at the point of connecting machines to individual cells.

That involves biology, math, physics, chemistry, materials, engineering, IT -- all the different ways they connect to each other at the nano-scale.

NSF will be the lead agency in the larger initiative, and we'll be focusing on science and engineering at the nanoscale.

We have developed a strong portfolio of investments. The major component is fundamental research at the nanoscale. It will take us from biological and environmental systems all the way to quantum computing.

This investment will strengthen critical fields and help to establish the science and engineering infrastructure and workforce in this area.

I also want to stress the connections between the initiatives. For example, we often say you need nano-tech to go farther in info-tech. You may recall a line from the President's the State of the Union Address.

He predicted:

"molecular computers the size of a tear drop with the power of today's fastest supercomputers."

That's not science fiction. This illustration comes from the work of Jim Heath at UCLA and Stan Williams at Hewlett Packard. It aims to build electronic circuits from the bottom-up, starting at the molecular level.

The beauty of this approach is that it could transform the process of fabricating chips. We know Moore's law will run out of physics and chemistry in a decade or so.

When the size of features on individual chip components drops below 100 nanometers, we'll be left with little room for error. A wire misplaced by just a few tenths of nanometers could cause a circuit to fail.

This approach is fundamentally different. It lays down millions of wires and switches. Then, it electronically configures the best connections.

Science magazine compares this to the way the developing brain strengthens active neural connections while allowing inactive ones to wither away.

It's still a long way from practically. But, who knows? We may just see molecular circuits in our lifetimes.

Biocomplexity in the Environment

Like the ITR initiative, the Biocomplexity in the Environment Initiative has gotten off to a great start.

We've had special competitions in FY99 and 2000 that focused on bringing together interdisciplinary teams to model the complexity that arises from the interaction of biological, physical and social systems.

In FY2001, we will be able to greatly enhance this framework. One area we see as especially promising is geomicrobiology -- which means examining the Earth's crust as a microbial habitat.

This research should lead to a greater understanding of a range of phenomena, from the recovery of secondary oil supplies to the bioremediation of contaminated aquifers.

This initiative also addresses NSF's overall role in environmental science and technology. The environment is an issue of profound national importance, as well as scientific interest. It remains a strategic priority for the Foundation.

Its importance was recently affirmed by the NSB Task Force on the Environment, a report which has just been approved and released. It recommended substantial increases for environmental research, education and scientific assessment.

Biocomplexity is the key to understanding the environment. A biocomplexity-based approach to investigations of the environment will provide a more complete understanding of natural processes and the effects of human behavior and decisions on the natural world.

Major Research Equipment

I mentioned earlier that we have two new starts in our investments in tools.

In the Major Research Equipment account we will add over $45 million. This includes starting two new projects, and providing increases to ongoing projects.

One is EarthScope, which is really two projects in one: the USArray and San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD). As the name implies, SAFOD/USArray is an array of instruments that will allow scientists to observe earthquake and other earth processes at much higher resolution.

The other new start is NEON - the National Ecological Observatory Network. NEON is a pole-to-pole network with a state-of-the-art infrastructure of platforms and equipment to enable 21st Century ecological and biocomplexity research.

In addition, we'll be providing support to a number of continuing projects in the MRE account: South Pole Station modernization, the Terascale computing system, the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and the Millimeter Array (MMA).

Additional Highlights

Here are a few other highlights from across the Foundation.

EPSCoR: Funding for EPSCoR (the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) will reach up to $70 million.

This includes $48 million provided through the Education and Human Resources appropriation, and we expect roughly $20 million in additional funding through the Research and Related Activities account.

As has been occurring for several years, this will enable EPSCoR researchers to participate more fully in research activities across the Foundation.

For plant genomics, Mr. Chairman, NSF is requesting a total of $102 million for investments in plant genome research, an increase of $22.5 million or 22% over last year. This investment will accelerate our understanding of basic biological processes in plants, paying particular attention to economically significant crops.

Finally, I just want to mention that NSF and NASA are developing a new partnership, and we'll be involving the Department of Energy as well. We've always had a close working relationship, and you can expect to see an increased emphasis on joint activities.

We are looking forward in the coming months to being able to jointly announce some major findings about the structure of the early universe.

Together, NSF and NASA are taking the science of measurement, analysis, and exploration to new extremes - from Earth to deep space, and from Antarctica to the beginnings of the universe. Stay tuned for more on this score.

Conclusion: Celebrating 50 Years

I'd like to close with a few words about the Foundation's 50th Anniversary. This budget proposal carries special significance in the context of NSF's history. It is a record setting increase. And, best of all, it is a budget that reflects the lessons of history.

It focuses on national priorities, as it should. But, this investment also recognizes that one of our highest national priorities must always be to stay at the leading-edge of science and engineering research and education across the board. Over half of the increased funding is just for that.

You see here the poster for our 50th Anniversary celebration - NSF50 as we call it. Whenever we tell the story of NSF, we cite the benefits of fundamental research. It's a familiar list: MRIs, lasers, the Internet, Doppler radar, and countless others.

These advances draw upon a multitude of disciplines. We know MRIs emerged from chemistry and physics, but we forget that they never would have become what they are without advanced mathematics. Doppler radar pushed the limits of atmospheric science, information science, and engineering - and opened up new frontiers in each.

We also have found that our support for graduate education has been crucial to all of these areas. That's why we have made such a strong investment in shoring up the base.

We'll be working across the Foundation to increase grant size and duration, to involve more students in research, and to bring in more young investigators. History has taught us time and again that there is no better way to invest in the future.

In closing -- we couldn't ask for a better way to mark NSF's 50th Anniversary. With all of you, working together, we can get NSF's second 50 years off to a great start.