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NSF & Congress


Dr. Neal Lane

Dr. Neal Lane
National Science Foundation

Before the House Science Committee
July 24, 1996

Mr. Chairman, Congressman Brown, members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear this morning to discuss the funding outlook for research and education.

This is truly a time of uncertainty and contradictions for science and engineering in America. We have never witnessed a more exciting era for discovery and progress across the spectrum of research and education: we have discovered planets orbiting suns outside our solar system; we are unlocking the secrets of the genetic code of plants and animals; and our schools are transforming and improving the teaching of mathematics and science at all levels.

The funding outlook stands in stark contrast to this atmosphere of discovery and progress. It raises difficult questions about our ability to continue extending the frontiers of science and engineering, address pressing social and environmental concerns, give our workforce the technological expertise needed to boost productivity, and spark the technological innovations and advances that drive economic growth.

It is clear that all of us here today, both in the Administration and in the Congress, share a commitment to bringing the Federal budget into balance. The President's 1997 budget reaches balance in 2002, and he is committed to reaching that goal. In fact, the President's budget proposes annual caps on total discretionary spending through 2002 to lock in the savings he has proposed.

The President has also emphasized that a balanced budget must not come at the expense of vital investments in our future. His budget therefore protects his commitment to such areas as education, the environment, and other priorities.

It nevertheless goes without saying that a balanced budget is far from a fait accompli. The hardest decisions lie ahead -- in the year-by-year decisions made through the annual budgeting and appropriations process. A balanced budget by 2002 will occur only if we exercise dedication and vigilance year-in and year-out to hold the line on spending while protecting vital investments in our nation's future.

It is understandable therefore that all of us share some measure of frustration as we move from broadly-based budget blueprints to the actual year-to-year allocations of budget authority. I often tell people the devil is not just in the details, it's in the totals. Balancing the budget will put significant pressure on domestic discretionary spending. It is clear that there will have to be significant reductions in this particular component of the Federal budget.

Al Teich and his colleagues at the AAAS deserve credit for fostering a dialogue on the implications of this trend. This clearly deserves further discussion, and we must proceed with caution as we examine these investments each year.

These figures of course are not set in stone. I fully expect to take advantage of opportunities to justify stronger support for research and education within the Administration's annual budget discussions, while abiding by the totals specified in the discretionary spending caps and with the recognition that increases in one area will require reductions elsewhere. In this same way, the authorizing committees and appropriations committees here in the Congress will undoubtedly continue to allocate funds and exercise oversight on a year-by-year basis. I will work as hard as I can with both the President and the Congress to secure adequate funding each year for all of NSF's investments in research and education. This will be an immense challenge which is mediated to a degree by the fact that the President's budget provides more total discretionary funds in each year from 1998 to 2002.

Indeed, before we devote too much time to analyzing the precise details of decisions that lie years away, I would remind the committee of an insightful phrase often attributed to the great physicist, Niels Bohr: "prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."

In this context, it is instructive to look back nearly a decade to what were perhaps the most famous set of out-year projections ever for NSF. The FY 1988 Presidential budget request outlined a plan to double the NSF budget over six years. By contrast to the projections in the current budget, the year-by-year estimates in the doubling plan were exhaustively discussed and studied. They were explicitly endorsed by the President, made the centerpiece of a five-year plan developed by NSF, and they were approved by Congress with only minor modifications in authorizing legislation.

Even with this high level of planning and bipartisan support, the estimates were revisited each year in the development of the President's budget and the annual appropriations process. In fact, for every year of the "doubling period," both the President's request and the corresponding appropriations fell short of the initial projections. In the end, while the NSF budget had increased substantially, it was nowhere near the original plans.

I share this story, Mr. Chairman simply to reinforce that for better or worse, budgeting has been and always will be an annual exercise for both the executive branch and the Congress. As this story illustrates, that fact worked against NSF a decade ago. In the current environment, it provides us with some measure of comfort.

In closing, let me just restate that all of us in the Administration remain committed to working with you and your colleagues on both sides of the aisle to keep America on a solid fiscal foundation. As we push forward toward a balanced budget, it is vital that we preserve NSF's diverse portfolio of high-risk, high-return investments in science and engineering research and education. Doing so will require vigilance, determination, and thoughtful planning in both our long-range outlook and in the actual budget decisions we make each year.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear this morning. I'll be happy to answer any questions.

See also: Hearing Summary.