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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Research Subcommittee
The NSF Budget: How Should We Determine Future Levels?

March 13, 2002

The House Science Committee's Research Subcommittee held a hearing on March 13th, 2002, on how Congress can best determine the appropriate funding level for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Witnesses were Stephen Director, Ph.D., Professor, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, and Dean of Engineering, University of Michigan; Karen S. Harpp Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Geology, Colgate University; Irwin Feller, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, Pennsylvania State University; and, Scott Donnelly, Senior Vice President, Corporate Research and Development, General Electric Company.

Chairman Smith stated that NSF funding is a critical factor in determining whether students pursue post-graduate degrees in science and engineering, and is therefore vital to the future of our economy. He noted that it is hard to quantify the value of basic research but its footsteps are everywhere in modern industry. Ranking Member E.B. Johnson emphasized her efforts to put NSF's budget on a doubling path with reauthorization legislation she had introduced. All members agreed with the critical role NSF plays in our economic development. Throughout the hearing witnesses and committee members referred to the need to correct the perceived imbalance in funding between the broad range of disciplines funded through NSF and the medical sciences funded at NIH.

Dr. Director emphasized the key role NSF plays in the development of many significant economic industries, such as the internet, and NSF's key role in nano science and technology. He noted that many medical breakthroughs were made possible by NSF funded basic research, and gave examples such as lasers for eye surgery that grew out of basic research at the University of Michigan. He stated that NSF must continue to support new areas of study and increase funding for major research equipment. He recommended that graduate stipends should be increased to at least $25,000, and that NSF funding should, at a minimum, track the growth rate provided for NIH.

Dr. Harpp gave a personal account of the impact that NSF support has had on her research and teaching career. Many of her students have gone on to teach or pursue careers in research, and she directly attributes this to her NSF CAREER award which provided an incentive for her to teach innovative and hands-on classes. She specifically noted the Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI); Major Research Instrumentation; and the Research in Undergraduate Institutions programs as playing a valuable role, particularly noting that the CCLI program brings innovation to introductory classes and a new perspective to science learning.

Dr. Feller offered three allocation criteria — intellectual excitement at the frontiers of knowledge; contributions to national priorities; and capabilities of American universities for research and education — as factors to use in allocating NSF's budget. In addition, he proposed that programs should be evaluated according to documented performance measures and through the competitive, merit-based review of proposals. He recommended a minimum increase of 8 to 10 percent for the people and ideas portions of NSF's portfolio, plus an unspecified amount of additional funds for the tools component.

Mr. Donnelly discussed the importance of NSF from an industrial perspective. He stressed the multidisciplinary nature of industrial labs, adding that success in any industry is a result of our university system of research and education and it is important to invest adequately across disciplines.

In response to questions from Members, all witnesses stressed the need to increase grant size and duration, as well as adequate funding for NSF. Merit review was also echoed by witnesses as the most effective way to set research priorities. Engineering Research Centers (ERC) were mentioned several times by witnesses as a good way to couple research at universities with the needs of industry. ERCs were also noted as providing quality outreach and diversity programs.

With respect to outreach, Dr. Harpp noted that the public has a fundamental fear of science, and that there is a need to demystify science. Mr. Donnelly made the point that in order to get more public support for NSF-funded research, the agency needs a mission like landing a spacecraft on the moon, a cure for cancer, or winning the cold war.

Congressman Boehlert, Chairman of the full Science Committee, explained his mission statement as follows: "The mission of the National Science Foundation is, and should continue to be, to provide better jobs at higher pay and a more robust research and development effort leading to greater economic stability, national security, and a world at peace." He also stated that all Science Committee members would continue to be aggressive in fighting for more money for NSF.

Witnesses' complete written testimony is available on the House Science Committee website.