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NSF & Congress


Dr. Vera C. Rubin
National Science Board

Before the VA, HUD, & Independent Agencies Subcommittee
April 1, 1998

Chairman Lewis, Ranking Member Stokes, and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify before you. I am Dr. Vera Rubin, member of the National Science Board and staff member, Department of Terrestrial Management at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. I would like to convey to you today some of the excitement and value to the Nation of the research and education activities that will be supported by the National Science Foundation's FY 1999 budget request. I will also mention some of the work of the Board in helping to develop this budget, and in trying to understand possible effects of changes in Federal agency research programs on the broader picture of Federal support for research.

First, however, I would like to thank the Subcommittee for its strong support of the Foundation in the past. Your continuing commitment to a strong national effort in research and education is extremely important to the NSF as we carry out our various responsibilities.

The National Science Board is a 24-member body appointed by the President for six-year terms. We represent a broad cross-section of the Nation's leaders in science, engineering, and education, and include full-time researchers, educators, university officials, and industry executives. Since the founding of the NSF in 1950, the Board has exercised two roles: that of a national policy body, and that of a governing body for the Foundation. In many respects the latter role is similar to that of a corporate board of directors, but as a Federal entity we operate within the framework of policy guidance established by the Congress and the Administration.

The Board approves NSF's policies, budget proposals, new programs, and major multimillion-dollar awards, and generally oversees the fiscal and management operations of NSF as a whole. We work very hard to make sure that all of the Foundation's policies, systems, programs, and awards are of the highest quality, incorporate our best thinking, and reflect the perspectives of the communities we represent.

We continue to provide oversight to NSF as it develops methods and processes to comply with the present and forthcoming requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act. To provide oversight to the development of the GPRA strategic plan and the performance plan by the National Science Foundation, I established an NSB Task Force on GPRA. This task force reports to the NSB Committee on Audit and Oversight and has provided constructive guidance for these important documents.

In addition to our close and continuing oversight of NSF, the Board has a special role in monitoring the health of science and engineering in the U.S. and in providing advice on national policy in research and education. Last year the Board was asked by Presidential Science Advisor Jack Gibbons to contribute to the response of the National Science and Technology Council to the Presidential Review Directive on the Government/University Partnership.

The resulting NSB report on the Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate and Postdoctoral Education affirmed the critical importance of Federal support to graduate and postdoctoral education and offered more than a dozen recommendations to strengthen this overwhelmingly successful partnership in advanced science and engineering education for the future. With your permission, I would like to submit this report for the record.

The Board further, as part of its national policy role, has drawn attention to the need for improved coordination and decision making at the Federal level in funding of science and engineering research. Such improvements are needed to avoid gaps, overlaps, and a failure to meet priorities that may otherwise occur. To further this objective, the NSB, in its recently released Working Paper on Government Funding of Scientific Research, urged initiation of a national dialogue among stakeholders in Federally-supported research to develop a broadly accepted methodology for priority-setting across fields of science. With your permission, I would like to submit this document to the record also.

Mr. Chairman, the budget before you has the wholehearted approval of the Board. In the face of very tight constraints on Federal discretionary spending, President Clinton has stepped forward to champion a 10 percent increase in NSF's 1999 budget. This important commitment to the strength of our national scientific infrastructure -- which I hope will be shared by Congress -- would enable NSF to help maintain U.S. world leadership in all aspects of science, mathematics, and engineering.

NSF funding is a vital investment in the Nation's future. The budget you are considering today will provide the means to fund thousands of worthwhile projects across the exciting frontiers of all fields of research, and it will fund important efforts to improve the Nation's education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

As we enter the 21st Century and the third millennium, there is so much we don't know and need to explore and discover. You might think about the state of the world 1000 years ago, when we were entering the second millennium and Leif Erickson and the Vikings sailed the oceans. Until recently, however, our understanding of the very deep ocean environment has remained the same as in the days of the Vikings.

NSF investments under the agency's Life and Earth's Environment theme hold tremendous possibilities for probing the mysteries of our natural world like the very deep ocean. Unidentified new life forms found thriving in the Earth's most extreme environments -- like Yellowstone's hot springs, the sea ice of Antarctica, or the ocean depths -- might revolutionize medicine, produce new materials for use in everyday life, and further our understanding of the origins of life itself.

Over this past century alone, incredible advances have occurred in fields like telecommunications. In 1898 telecommunications meant Morse code and Western Union. Today we are grappling with challenges unimagined at that time: how to handle the outpouring of information and data flowing from satellites, fiber optics, the Web, and other advanced telecommunications.

NSF has responded to these challenges by investing in a wide-ranging set of activities we call Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence, or KDI. Greater knowledge about how we learn and remember, or how we think and communicate, and the machine-human interface, could advance computers and communication technology beyond the current astonishing state. Such advancements hold immense potential as a driver of progress -- an opportunity for all Americans. KDI is not simply about hardware; KDI is not simply about software; KDI is about the wherewithal to change and expand the way we communicate, research, and learn.

Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence as well as Life and Earth's Environment are exciting programs that cut across numerous fields of inquiry. While NSF continues, appropriately, to promote interdisciplinary activities, these activities are unlikely to be successful without strong disciplines at their core. The NSF FY 1999 budget will allow NSF to maintain core competency while pursuing exciting initiatives that cut across disciplines. We need both the core investments and the flexibility to pursue emerging research opportunities.

The Foundation's FY 1999 budget also is important for improving education in science and mathematics at all grade levels. The Board strongly believes that we must engage all children in inquiry-based, hands-on learning so that the next generation of workers, researchers, and leaders has the necessary science, mathematics, technology, and problem-solving skills to keep the United States a world leader in the 21st Century.

High standards with high accountability for student performance is the path to improved achievement in K-12 math and science. We must act on our high expectations, however, not just declare them. Indeed, the National Science Board's response to the recent 12th grade results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) was swift. We have created a Task Force on Mathematics and Science Achievement to consider the issues raised by the TIMSS report.

Later this year, building on a series of hearings organized by its Committee on Education and Human Resources, the Board will issue a policy report that clarifies the role of the science and engineering communities, especially higher education, in rallying as well as supporting schools, teachers, students, and families to the literacy and numeracy demands that all citizens now face. The next generation of workers, researchers, and leaders must have the necessary science, mathematics, technology, and problem-solving skills to keep the United States a world leader in the 21st century.

This proposed NSF budget would help keep America at the cutting edge of science. It would enable new discovery and educate the world's best scientists and engineers -- setting the stage for the next millennium. It is good for the country, good for science, and good for economic growth. But most important, it is also good for the American people.

Strong support for NSF is clearly a keystone of our investment in the future. And strong support for the research performed or supported by other Federal agencies, in connection with their missions, is vital as well. Just taking the example of nanoscale science and engineering mentioned by Neal Lane demonstrates that this cutting-edge research supported by NSF has applications for the R&D mission of many agencies, including DOD, NIH, DOE, and NASA.

The Board is very concerned about the funding of science and engineering research in the future. Indeed, we concluded our Working Paper on Government Funding of Scientific Research, mentioned previously, by stating that changed global and domestic circumstances " not reduce the desirability of continued government funding of scientific research...A nation requires a robust high-tech industry, a scientific talent base, and a vigorous research activity to prosper over the long term."

We are concerned as well for the possible fate of many research programs in other Federal agencies that complement those of NSF but which are currently being challenged. We urge the Congress, when considering funding for Federal agencies that have science, engineering, and education programs, to do so with explicit regard for the relationships among those programs across the government and with industrial research and development. It is important to take actions, in the national interest, that fortify the vitality of U.S. science and engineering.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would be glad to take any questions.

See also: Hearing Summary.