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
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."