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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Basic Research Subcommittee Hearing / NSF and NSB Heads Testify

March 5, 1997

At a hearing of the House Basic Research Subcommittee on March 5, 1997, NSF Director Neal Lane and NSB Chairman Richard Zare discussed NSF's budget request for fiscal year 1998 with congressional leaders. Accompanied by Acting Deputy Director Joseph Bordogna and the NSF Assistant Directors, Dr. Lane fielded questions from subcommittee members on merit review, NSF management of facilities, Next Generation Internet and the future of the supercomputing centers.

Full Committee Vice Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) chairing the hearing in place of subcommittee chairman Steven Schiff (R-NM), supported the President's request for NSF in his opening statement, calling the request "a realistic proposal from which we on the Science Committee can work". Vice Chairman Ehlers noted that "NSF's request for FY 1998 of 3.4 percent growth thus converges with the Congress' view of how we can both balance the budget and provide some growth in our federally supported research enterprise."

Ehlers also indicated the subcommittee's interest in a number of NSF issues: the construction of new NSF supported facilities such as the Millimeter Array, Polar Cap Observatory and South Pole Station; NSF's role in math and science education, especially in light of President Clinton's recent emphasis on education; NSF participation in the Next Generation Internet initiative; and implementation of GPRA at NSF. Additional hearings consisting of outside witnesses are planned on these topics, Ehlers said.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Lane made a strong case for the NSF budget request and for a continued robust overall federal investment in fundamental research. Lane linked government-funded research to a number of today's commonly used innovations including virtual design of aircraft, use real-time inventory by business, and the creation of the Global Positioning System.

Lane also warned of the economic consequences of failing to continually invest in science and education. Lane said that our economic competitors were realizing the importance of long-term investments in science and technology just at a time while U.S. budgets for science and technology were beginning to decline. "Other nations - Japan in particular," Lane noted, "are demonstrating a growing awareness of the link between a strong science and technology base and a nation's overall economic vitality." Evidence of increased investment by economic competitors such as Japan "provides one more reminder that strong public support for research and education is essential if the U.S. is to remain a world leading economy in the 21st Century," Lane concluded.

Subcommittee members asked a wide range of questions on NSF programs and policies. On the subject of the role of board from Rep. Ehlers, Dr. Zare described the actions of the NSB task force on merit review on updating the review criteria and commented on the excellent input from the science and engineering community. Zare also discussed the recent NSB retreat and the meeting with Drs. Frank Press and Ed David on the future role for the NSB on national science policy issues. There is considerable interest in the future direction of national science policy in the Congress, Rep. Ehlers responded, and he also noted that Speaker of the House Gingrich and Science Committee Chairman Sensenbrenner have had discussions about forming a task force national science policy where Mr. Ehlers would play a significant role.

The success of the Advanced Technology Education (ATE) Program and NSF's role in the Next Generation Internet Initiative were subjects of questions from Rep. James Barcia (D-MI). Community colleges had not received enough emphasis in the past - Lane commented with regard to the ATE program - but that local community colleges are now recognized as an important resource and that ATE is strengthening the connections between two-year and four-year schools. Dr. Lane and Dr. Bordogna also talked about the importance of KDI as a new vision for the use of information technology in research and that NSF's role the in the NGI initiative is centered on providing a new vision for the future based on KDI that goes beyond just infrastructure. Asking rhetorically why NSF was not given a greater role in the NGI initiative, Rep. Ehlers stated that Congress should work to give NSF a greater role in the program.

The future of the NSF supercomputer centers and the recompetition of the center program was the focus of questions from Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA). Responding to Rep. Doyle's concerns over the selection process and rationale for the restructuring of the program, Dr. Lane stated that the new Supercomputer program structure was proposed to ensure that a richer partnership be created with expertise coming from a diverse number of new program participants. Dr. Lane also noted that NSF was mindful of "realistic budget scenarios" in creating the new program.

Other topics of discussion included NSF's policy on funding science that may be seen as politically or socially sensitive, and NSF's policy for determining when NSF investment is appropriate or whether the private sector should step in to take over support of certain types of research. In response to the latter question, Dr. Bordogna gave a concise description of NSF's philosophy of funding new, innovative ideas and described how NSF works closely with industry, academia and others to determine the direction of NSF funding, including the recompetition of centers to foster new areas of research while moving away from old areas that may be more ripe for industry support.

Rep. Ehlers concluded the hearing by voicing his concern about reports of cost overruns at NSF facilities and asked whether NSF is reexamining the construction management practices in light of the reported problems. Dr. Zare stated that the Board takes these reports very seriously and that significant amounts of time were spent at the February NSB meeting on these issues. Each case is complicated but actions are being taken, Zare said. Lane commented that, first there were disputed costs at issue that may or may not result in actual overruns. Lane also described that the Foundation has in place currently a process for assessing and reviewing cost and management plans for projects in the Major Research Equipment Account and that NSF is working under the leadership of Acting Deputy Director Bordogna to develop recommendations for other NSF projects outside the MRE account.

See also: Dr. Zare's Testimony.