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NSF & Congress


Dr. Neal Lane

Dr. Neal Lane
National Science Foundation

Before the House Science Committee
Subcommittee on Basic Research
March 5, 1997

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to appear today and provide the subcommittee with an overview of the NSF budget request for the coming year. We have prepared draft authorizing legislation for the National Science Foundation for fiscal years 1998 and 1999 that we will submit to the Congress this week.

For the coming fiscal year, the National Science Foundation requests $3.367 billion. This will allow us to invest in more than 19,000 research and education projects in science and engineering. These investments in people, ideas, and exploring the unknown will guide our future course as a nation and bring new sources of prosperity and opportunity to all Americans.

If one were to take a snapshot of the U.S. economy today, it would show a number of key areas driving growth and opportunity. They come under headings like biotechnology, multimedia, medical imaging, environmental technologies, polymers, decision theory, educational technologies, sensors, and opto-electronics, not to mention high-speed computational and communications technologies like the Internet and World Wide Web.

Virtually all of these innovations have become widely used within the past few decades. And while these areas are key to productivity in a wide array of industries and sectors, from manufacturing to health care to financial services, they share one important trait - each has deep roots in the support for fundamental research and education provided by the National Science Foundation and other Federal agencies. For example:

  • Boeing's new 777 jetliner has been cited as "the most advanced and service-ready jet in commercial aviation history." Yet, the 777 was designed entirely "on screen" -- bypassing the need for models and mockups, and saving the company an estimated $100 million. The computer-assisted-design and virtual reality systems that underlie this important accomplishment can all be traced to years of sustained public investments in such diverse topics as scientific visualization, fundamental mathematics, rapid prototyping, and other areas that cut across the spectrum of science and engineering.
  • On January 2, 1997, a New York Times article on productivity in business opened with the following passage:

    "Dell Computer Corp. has designed its newest factory without room for inventory storage. Chrysler Corp. can increase vehicle production without building new factories. And General Electric expects to save millions of dollars by purchasing spare parts over the Internet.

    "On the surface, these are manufacturing stories. At heart they are among the thousands of new business practices made possible by technology."

  • If an ordinary citizen were asked to name a field of research that is unlikely to generate much in the way of discoveries that would quickly find their way to the marketplace, it would not be surprising if astronomy were mentioned. But the determination of precise positions for satellites can only be accomplished by very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) radio telescopes fixing on distant cosmic radio sources. The Global Positioning System that uses satellites to precisely pinpoint our location at any spot on the globe would be impossible without such precision. GPS has important applications for the military, recreation, transportation, and even for reducing the time and cost of commercial airline flights. GPS is a multibillion dollar industry that would have been impossible without astronomical research.

Moreover, the technologies that made possible these new innovations were in turn made possible by steady and stable Federal support for the instruments and insights needed to extend the frontiers of physics, cosmology, supercomputing, manufacturing research, and other areas of science and engineering that demand the most of new technologies.

Similar success stories abound in today's world, such as bacteria that munch on oil spills, classroom computers that adapt automatically to students' strengths and weaknesses, and new chemical techniques that slash the cost of drug design and development. Each can be traced back to investments in people and ideas through research and education in science and engineering.

In this same way, we have great expectations that recent breakthroughs in fundamental research hold the key to future economic success. For example, the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for research on the carbon structures known as buckyballs that NSF has supported for over a decade. Today, these NSF-supported researchers are stringing buckyballs together to create "nanotubes" - which turn out to be 100 times stronger than steel but only one sixth the weight. In the words of The Washington Post, these could be the "drop-dead super-fiber of the future." These and other examples bring to life what top economists have been saying for years: public investments in science and engineering yield immense dividends to our economy and society.

Furthermore, NSF's unique role - that of supporting university-based (non-clinical) research and education across all fields and disciplines - has been found to be among the most productive of all public investments. One seminal study1 has estimated that the rate of return on investments in academic research exceeds 25 percent on an annual basis, outpacing even the stock market over the long haul. Other studies have found an increasingly vital link between our university research base and the competitive position of U.S. industry. Newly awarded patents, for example, draw upon current findings from academic research at a rate never before seen in history.

While these examples provide ample testimony to the success of NSF's past investments, all signs are that they are only the beginning of what is possible - provided we uphold our nation's position of leadership across the spectrum of science and engineering research and education.

As we approach the 21st Century, it is especially noteworthy that other nations - Japan in particular - are demonstrating a growing awareness of the link between a strong science and technology base and a nation's overall economic vitality. U.S. Ambassador and former Vice President Walter Mondale noted this in a recent editorial: "One clear indicator of the seriousness of Japan's R&D efforts is the level of spending_." Japan has recently announced a national goal of doubling its support of basic research over the next five years. This 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.

NSF's FY 1998 budget request provides NSF with an overall increase of 3 percent, which would enable the agency to pursue a number of emerging opportunities that hold immense potential both from a scientific standpoint and as drivers of future economic growth and social benefit.

These focused efforts draw upon NSF's strong linkages across all science and engineering fields, as well as the agency's commitment to the integration of research and education and to working in partnership with academic institutions, private industry, and other agencies at all levels of government.

Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence in the Age of Information

Over the span of a few years, computers have moved from large, air-conditioned rooms to our laps and our pockets. While in 1980 NSF-supported scientists and engineers had only limited access to the highest levels of computational power, today they employ desktop systems of comparable power and have access to a collection of supercomputing facilities with capabilities they could only dream about a decade ago. Over this same period, the number of host computers on what is now the Internet has leapt from about 200 to over 10 million in 1996 - a 50,000 fold increase.

This rise in both power and connectivity has changed the face of science and engineering, just as it has generated new opportunities for all Americans. The challenge today is to realize the full potential of these emerging technologies for research, for education, and for our economy and society. This era is often referred to as "the information age," but that heading does not do justice to the possibilities and opportunities emerging today. The coming age is perhaps best described as an era of "knowledge and distributed intelligence" - an era in which knowledge is available to anyone, located anywhere, at any time, and an era in which power, information, and control move away from centralized systems to the individual.

Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI) is an ambitious Foundation-wide effort designed to take information, communications, computing and networking to a new level of technological, economic, educational, and societal impact. It has the potential to revolutionize not only U.S. science and engineering, but also the way in which all Americans learn, work, and interact. It draws on past advances made in networking, supercomputing, and learning and intelligent systems. In FY 1998, NSF plans a focused, multidisciplinary $58 million program of activities in support of KDI research, infrastructure development, and education that draws upon and reinforces related on-going efforts totaling approximately $355 million.

For FY 1998, these investments in KDI fall into two basic categories:

  • Multidisciplinary Approaches to Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence ($48 million). This NSF-wide activity will provide researchers and educators an opportunity to link diverse components of the KDI framework, so that advances in one area work to the benefit of all. This effort will span such activities as knowledge-based networking, learning and intelligent systems, and new approaches to computational tools important to many disciplines.
  • Next Generation Internet ($10 million). NSF is a key participant in the President's 5-year program to move toward the Next Generation Internet. The agency's role builds on its current programs of networking, infrastructure development, and research. NSF's $10 million contribution will be devoted to participation in a multi-agency program aimed at enhancing Internet capabilities for research and education at colleges and universities.

Life and Earth's Environment

NSF has had a strong presence in the life, social, and environmental sciences for many years, supporting research and education activities that complement the mission-driven activities of other agencies. Increasingly, NSF is focusing on how living organisms interact with their environment, including how humans affect their environment and vice versa. Examples include microbial diversity and bioremediation, metabolic engineering and bioprocessing, natural hazards mitigation, environmental geochemistry and biogeochemistry, human dimensions of global change, and long term ecological research sites.

The study of life in extreme environments can provide important new insights into how organisms formed, and about the range of adaptive mechanisms which allow them to function. Researchers can then examine how to mimic such mechanisms for use in situations inimical to human life such as bioremediation or bioprocessing. This overall effort was begun in FY 1997 and we will continue to develop this program in FY 1998, in concert with activities in other agencies (such as NASA's Origins program).

Educating for the Future

America's system of higher education sets a world-leading standard for excellence and inclusiveness. Yet even this outstanding system faces challenges in preparing students for dealing with the rapidly changing scientific and technological landscape expected in the 21st century. NSF is addressing these challenges by supporting innovative, systemic approaches to education and training at all levels, and especially through activities that link learning and discovery.

Integration of Research and Education. This core strategy from the Foundation's strategic plan has emerged as a key touchstone for all NSF investments. Educating today's students in a discovery-rich environment will better prepare them to meet tomorrow's challenges. Likewise, history has shown that research in an education-rich environment yields an exceptionally dynamic and diverse enterprise. FY 1998 highlights include:

  • The CAREER program (Faculty Early Career Development), which provides a framework for junior-level faculty to link their research activities with their teaching and mentoring responsibilities. For FY1998 the CAREER program will grow by 21 percent, to $81 million. NSF nominates selected awardees for the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers in order to recognize both the outstanding character of their research and their commitment to education.
  • The REU program (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) will significantly expand in FY 1998, increasing by 11 percent to almost $30 million. It is one of NSF's most popular and successful programs, as it provides opportunities for several thousand undergraduate students each year to participate in ongoing or specially designated research projects at sites throughout the nation.
  • Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT). This new cross-Foundation activity, funded at $20 million, will merge features of the ongoing Research Training Group program in the biological sciences with the Graduate Research Traineeship program. This experimental effort provides a flexible alternate approach to graduate education - as was recommended in recent reports by the National Science Board and the National Academy of Sciences.

Systemic Reform. NSF's systemic reform activities are well-established at the K-12 level, where they will remain a high priority. FY 1998 will see the initiation of focused systemic reform efforts at the undergraduate and graduate levels that will involve all parts of the Foundation. Experimental activities in FY 1996 and FY 1997 - such as the Comprehensive Reform of Undergraduate Education and the Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education - have set the stage for an enhanced effort, or more accurately, the age of Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence.

Challenges to Learning. Just as the information age creates challenges and opportunities for the research component of science and engineering, it creates challenges and opportunities for learning. Formal education systems have changed little while the workplace and other aspects of life have been transformed and redesigned. In conjunction with the KDI effort described above, NSF will explore how individuals and groups of individuals learn, both inside and outside formal education systems, as well as how technology might be used to change the patterns of traditional education.

EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) is a Foundation-wide investment pursued in cooperation with state governments that helps to broaden U.S. capabilities in science, engineering, and technology. In FY 1998, NSF funding for EPSCoR totals more than $38 million. Improved linkages between EPSCoR and other NSF-supported research and education activities is expected to result in an additional $8-10 million in merit-reviewed research for EPSCoR states. This funding is intended to enable researchers and educators supported through EPSCoR to participate more fully in other Foundation-wide activities.

Facility Investments

In keeping with its core purpose of advancing the frontiers of science and engineering, NSF is acutely aware of the need for major research platforms that support the activities of a broad spectrum of researchers and educators. FY 1998 will see the completion of funding for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), maintain investments in facility improvements at the South Pole, and initiate support for the Polar Cap Observatory and the first phase of the Millimeter Array.

I would like to close with just a brief comment on NSF's efforts to improve our accountability -- to Congress, to the public, and to the research and education communities that are our major constituencies. This budget was prepared in accordance with our Strategic Plan. We are now working to develop performance measurements so that our next budget submission complies with the Government Performance and Results Act. We are anxious to have your views on the types of metrics that would be most helpful to Congress in setting budget priorities.

NSF remains committed to enabling the highest possible returns on the nation's investment in research and education. The agency has traditionally maintained a very low overhead rate and has received national recognition for its commitment to efficiency and productivity. This past December, for example, NSF became the first Federal agency to receive the prestigious National Information Infrastructure Award, which recognizes innovative uses of the Internet and World Wide Web in business, education, and government.

Today's budget realities require that every dollar work harder and yield the highest possible dividends. At the same time, the possibilities and opportunities emerging across the spectrum of science and engineering remind us that this is a truly remarkable era for research and education in America. The investments contained in this request will help ensure that our nation gains full benefit from these emerging opportunities - and that the future brings greater progress and prosperity to all Americans.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to discuss some of the highlights of our budget request. I would be pleased to respond to any questions that you or members of the committee might have.

1 Mansfield, E. 1991. "Academic Research and Industrial Innovation." Research Policy 20: 1-12.

For a fuller discussion of the rate of return on scientific research, see Science and Engineering Indicators 1996, Chapter 8.

Return to testimony.

See also: Hearing Summary.