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NSF & Congress


Dr. Richard Zare

National Science Board

Before the VA, HUD, & Independent Agencies Subcommittee
House Appropriations Committee
April 10, 1997

Chairman Lewis and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify before you this morning. I am Dr. Richard Zare, Chairman of the National Science Board and Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University. I would like to convey to you today a bit 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 1998 budget request. I will also mention some of the work of the Board in helping to develop this budget, and in trying to get a better understanding of the possible effects of any 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.

The budget before you has the wholehearted approval of the Board. NSF funding is a vital investment in the nation's future. The budget you're looking at 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.

I would especially like to call your attention to a new initiative in the area of Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence, which holds immense potential as a driver of progress and opportunity for all Americans. This is a new set of investments spanning a wide range of Foundation programs, including NSF's part of the Next Generation Internet, and going beyond that, for example, to better link research in cognition with technologies for teaching and learning. I am so excited about the possibilities arising from this "KDI" initiative that I wrote an editorial that appeared in Science magazine on February 21. With your permission, I would like to submit the editorial for the record.

The Foundation's FY 1998 budget also is important for improving education in science and mathematics at all grade levels. Aside from the beauty and enjoyment that flows from better understanding our world, there are three practical reasons for that education:

  • First, to educate the workers and entrepreneurs who are able to understand and use research results and new technological capabilities to keep the nation at the forefront in today's global marketplace;
  • Second, to refresh the pool of researchers who can go about gaining new understanding of nature, who can design novel processes and products, and who are able to capitalize on discoveries made by other societies; and,
  • Third, to give the public as a whole, and especially its future leaders, a sufficient foundation in science, mathematics, technology and problem-solving, to make sound decisions about important national and global issues.
    The Board also recently led an effort to revise the general criteria for proposal review that are used to select projects for funding in all NSF programs. The criteria have served the Foundation well, by and large, but they have not been given a comprehensive examination since the early 1980s, and we think they need at least some updating to be brought into line with the Foundation's Strategic Plan.

A task force consisting of the Board members and senior NSF staff, with input from our proposer and reviewer communities developed new general criteria. The revised criteria were adopted at our March meeting, a couple of weeks ago for use for all proposals reviewed beginning October 1. NSF is getting the word out to the national research community, so investigators can have the new criteria in mind as they work on their proposals over the summer.

We are also providing oversight to NSF as it develops methods and processes to comply with the present and forthcoming requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act, and monitoring the phase-in of other legislated government-wide requirements such as the Information Technology Management Reform Act.

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. We have been discussing ways to give considerable attention this year to research funding priorities within NSF, in the context of the overall picture of support by the various Federal agencies.

The world is changing more quickly than ever. Each of us sees the speed and force of those changes around us every day, in ways that we perceive as wondrous, elegant and profound -- even, sometimes, a little overwhelming. I need only mention three examples:

  • developing (when it's working) a nearly instantaneous, worldwide information delivery capability that, among other things, is promising to cause a revolution in scientific publishing comparable in its impact to the Gutenberg printing press;
  • the ever-increasing use of microprocessors and robotics, from what you see in the home to those used in manufacturing; and,
  • something that I have a very personal involvement in, namely, finding possible evidence of primitive life on ancient Mars.

In more down-to-earth ways, we also see, for example, that global competition in manufacturing continues to grow, challenging our economic base; and that the public's expectations about combating terrorism, violence, disease, poverty and environmental problems continue to rise. Although research alone cannot solve these problems, it is one of the most important contributors to their solution. Because the Federal government plays a critical role in supporting the fundamental research that underlies progress in these areas, it is more important than ever that a robust and well-considered level of overall Federal investment in long-term research be sustained.

Strong support for NSF is clearly a keystone of that investment. And strong support for the research performed or supported by other Federal agencies, in connection with their missions, is vital as well. The Board is very concerned about the possibilities for reduction or compression of the overall Federal investment in research. We are concerned as well for the possible fate of the various research programs in Federal agencies whose budgets -- indeed, their very existence -- continue to be challenged.

Mr. Chairman, 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 not to take actions that will undercut areas of science and engineering vital to our national interest.

The Board's efforts over the next few months will center on getting a clearer understanding of the many linkages within the Federal and national picture for research so that we will be better able to visualize or anticipate the consequences of various actions by the Administration and Congress.

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

See also: Hearing Summary.