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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: Senate VA, HUD and Independent Agencies Subcommittee Hearing on OSTP & NSF FY 1998 Budget Requests

April 22, 1997

On April 22, 1997, Dr. John Gibbons, the President's Science and Technology Advisor and Dr. Neal Lane, Director of the National Science Foundation, testified before the VA, HUD and Independent Agencies Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on their respective agencies' FY 1998 budget requests. Rather than explore specific programmatic requests, Chairman Bond (R-MO) and Ranking Member Mikulski (D-MD) concentrated their questions on how to set priorities for federal funding of research and development (R&D) and then evaluate the success of those investments. Senator Burns (R-MT) made a brief appearance in order to commend the good working relationship between the Congress and both OSTP and NSF.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Gibbons emphasized the difficulties of providing sufficient federal funding for research and development while trying to balance the budget. Dr. Gibbons cited three areas in which OSTP leads U.S. government efforts to improve efficiency:

  • improving the productivity of federal support through improved interagency cooperation;
  • strengthening national innovation and incentives for R&D through tax incentives, state-federal-university partnerships, and international cooperation; and
  • leading efforts to build more effective accountability through the Government Performance and Results Act.

In turn, Dr. Lane highlighted the impacts of NSF-supported research, citing examples such as the development of microbes that purify contaminated groundwater and the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry award to NSF researchers for their work on carbon molecules. He pointed to the National Science Foundation's reputation for efficiency and effectiveness and called for strong support for research and education to keep the U.S. as a world leading economy in the 21st Century.

Senator Bond set the tone for the hearing with an open-ended question on how to determine the best level of federal investment in research and development. Dr. Gibbons suggested that about 2.5 to 3 percent of GDP is an appropriate target. He testified that federal investments may shrink while Congress and the President try to balance the budget, but that, in the long term, funding for R&D must stay strong to keep the U.S. at the global technological forefront. Dr. Lane recommended high levels of investment in university-based research because of the immediately realizable educational benefits for the future workforce. He also pointed out that, although percentage of GDP is often used, many factors, such as the size of our country, are important to consider when determining the best level of federal R&D investment.

Senator Mikulski advocated federal investment in basic research and development as a catalyst for industrial growth and competitiveness, reflecting her call a few years ago for basic research in strategic areas. She called on the U.S. government to help fill the "Valley of Death" between federal dollars for research and development and the export of technologies that emerge from such investments. Finally, she questioned Dr. Gibbons on the status of the space station, asking specifically about the Administration's plan to take funds from the shuttle program to pay for the Russian portion of the space station.

In the second round of questions, Senator Bond, supported by Senator Mikulski, questioned the lack of discussion of the NSF's strategic initiatives from the FY 1998 budget request. In response, Dr. Lane discussed how NSF has integrated many of the strategic initiatives across its programs and has expanded others, such as the High Performance Computing and Communications, into new initiatives, like Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence.

Before leaving, Senator Mikulski questioned Dr. Gibbons and Dr. Lane on the role of their respective agencies in the federal government's attempts to prevent a computer crises in the year 2000. Both witnesses tried to point out that the pending computer crisis is not a research, but a coding, problem and NSF was developing a plan to avoid a problem in the year 2000. Senator Mikulski and Senate Bond asked OSTP to draft an overview of government-wide efforts to prevent a computer crises in the Year 2000.

Senator Bond pushed for more research in biotechnology and specifically urged Dr. Lane to explain why NSF has funded the mapping of the Arabidopsis, a mustard plant, rather that the corn genome, given the corn genome's potential economic benefits. Dr. Lane explained that the mustard plant is much simpler, having only 100 million base pairs, while the corn and human genomes have 3 billion or so base pairs. He pointed out that mapping the mustard plant will more efficiently provide information that can be extrapolated for corn genomes. Still, Senator Bond called for an interagency process, led by OSTP, to lay out an appropriate strategy on how to make the most progress on mapping genomes with potential agricultural benefits.

The remainder of the hearing was devoted to how to measure the results of federal R&D investments. Specifically, Senator Bond asked Dr. Lane to explain how NSF chose the strategic areas, Life in Extreme Environments and Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence, and how the Foundation would evaluate progress in these areas. Dr. Lane explained that the initiatives came from the research community, pointing out that the need for such timely research initiatives is laid out in the Foundation's strategic plan. He testified that the Foundation will be developing performance measures as part of Government Performance & Results Act process to be used for these and other NSF activities. Senator Bond concluded the hearing by emphasized that the Subcommittee faces some difficult choices in the coming months and will have to defend money for R&D to the rest of Congress. He reiterated that it is important that the National Science Foundation, as well as other federal agencies, be able to clearly articulate how it sets priorities and evaluates its impacts.