NSF & Congress
Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation
Before the House Appropriations Committee
Subcommittee on VA/HUD and Independent Agencies
March 4, 1999
Mr. Chairman, Mr. Mollohan, members of the Subcommittee,
thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify
on the budget request for Fiscal Year 2000 for the
National Science Foundation.
I begin by noting that this hearing is a first for
many of us, Mr. Chairman: it is my first appearance
before the VA/HUD subcommittee and it is the first
NSF hearing for you as Chairman and for Mr. Mollohan
as Ranking Minority Member. It is also the first appearance
before the subcommittee of my good friend and colleague
Dr. Eamon Kelly, Chairman of the National Science
As we begin our tenures together, let me say that I
look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, and
all members of the subcommittee to help strengthen
our nation's investment in fundamental science and
Before I turn to details of the NSF budget request,
I'd like to say a few words about how NSF fits into
the overall R&D environment of our country.
Dr. Kelly has touched on some important trends in fundamental
R&D in recent NSB reports. Let me mention one other
long-term research trend that is causing concern among
many in the science community.
NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies has taken
a close look at the mix of Federal research funding
across different fields of science and engineering.
Over the past 25-plus years, the mix has changed significantly
and dramatically -- primarily through gains in biomedical
fields and declines in the physical sciences and engineering.
- In 1970, the life sciences accounted for 29 percent
of Federal research spending. By 1997, their share
had risen to 43 percent. Put another way, the
share increased by half.
- Engineering, by contrast, saw its share decline
by 12 percentage points over the same period,
falling from 31 percent to 19 percent of the Federal
- The share going to the physical sciences dropped
by more than 5 points -- from 19 percent to 14
percent of the total portfolio.
The combination effect is just as significant. Engineering
and the physical sciences -- taken together -- accounted
for 50 percent of federal research spending in 1970.
That's down to 33 percent today -- a drop from half
of the total to just one third.
The sharp nature of the shift in funding toward the
biomedical fields has taken more than a few people
I'd be the first to tell you about the great things
that are happening in biomedical fields. Some of that
funding has gone to my own research. But, I also know
that society cannot live by biomedical bread alone.
This trend in fact concerns many in the medical sciences.
NIH Director Harold Varmus discussed it in a speech
last year. Dr. Varmus, much to his credit, took the
bull by the horns and talked about the dependence
of biology and medicine on other fields of science.
In his words:
"Most of the revolutionary changes that have occurred
in biology and medicine are rooted in new methods.
Those, in turn, are usually rooted in fundamental
discoveries in many different fields."
He then went on to cite laser surgery, CAT scans, fiber
optic viewing, ECHO cardiography, and fetal sonograms
as examples of these revolutionary advances.
This brings us to the FY 2000 request for NSF, and
the need for increased investment in research and
education. NSF is the fulcrum for all of science and
NSF is the only agency whose mission covers research
in all fields of science and engineering, as well
as education at all levels -- cradle to grave. We
support the fundamental work that benefits the mission
agencies right down the line.
For this reason, it is important that NSF continue
to support investments that reach all fields and disciplines,
which is the governing philosophy of our FY 2000 request.
Let me turn now to the budget. NSF is fast closing
in on a $4 billion milestone.
The FY 2000 request comes to $3.95 billion, which represents
a 5.8 percent increase over the current level. This
is an outstanding request given the constraints imposed
by the discretionary spending caps.
The Administration agreed with us when we said loudly
and clearly that research investments deserve the
highest priority. The positive response we got is
reflected in an 8 percent increase for research project
The headliner in this budget is the new initiative
in information technology. The rationale is clear.
As Internet growth has gone through the roof, IT has
become the essential fuel for the nation's economic
The numbers speak for themselves. The latest estimates
show that IT has generated one-third of the recent
growth in the U.S. economy. It now accounts for 7.4
million jobs...and it pays wages that are 60 percent
higher than the private sector average.
The challenge now is to sustain this record of success.
You may be familiar with the recent report by the President's
Information Technology Advisory Committee -- PITAC
for short. PITAC concluded that federal support for
long-term research on information technology has been
"dangerously inadequate." In its words "support in
most critical areas has been flat or declining for
nearly a decade, while the importance of IT to our
economy has increased dramatically."
This has led to the government-wide initiative: Information
Technology for the 21st Century -- IT2
as it's called.
Across the government, IT2 will total $366
million across six agencies.
Sixty percent of this will go to support university-based
research. That's the real win-win for America. The
academic research investment serves double duty, as
it armors and enables students with advanced IT skills.
NSF is the lead agency for IT2. This was
recommended last fall by PITAC, and we are glad to
accept this responsibility and challenge.
We'll be putting $146 million into our part of IT2,
which will cover three sets of activities.
First is fundamental IT research -- at $100 million.
This will focus on a key assessment from PITAC's
For all of our ability to push the high-end in computing,
no one really understands how all the pieces work
together. The need right now is to improve both reliability
and performance. We can achieve this by understanding
how systems interact and gaining new knowledge of
the working whole.
- The request also includes $36 million for a terascale
computing system. This will serve computer scientists
and the entire science and engineering community.
- Finally, we'll take advantage of the fact that
NSF's portfolio includes both the information
sciences and the social, behavioral, and economic
sciences. There is $10 million for research on
the societal, ethical, and workforce impacts of
When people ask me, why NSF and the United States should
invest in information technologies -- and why now
-- I say it is an absolute must.
It's not a national initiative, it's a national imperative.
It's a classic example of a long- term investment
in fundamental research that works for the common
good, in fact, for the global good.
IT2 is an investment that will strengthen
the entire research and education enterprise. It will
deliver tools and capabilities that will benefit every
field, every discipline, and every level of education.
When we bring faster computers to weather forecasting,
we save lives, we protect buildings and crops, and
more -- by getting better advance warning of El Niño,
tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe events. My
own research on climate and infectious diseases (El
Niño and cholera) has made this dramatically
clear to me.
The possibilities are limitless. We tackle the toughest
challenges in science and engineering, and we put
high octane fuel in this great engine of job creation
This same sense of imperative comes through in a second
initiative presented in the request. This one is in
the area we call biocomplexity.
Biocomplexity is a multidisciplinary approach to understanding
our world's environment. For generations, scientists
have studied parts of our environmental system --
individual species and habitats -- in isolation. Now
it is time for a better understanding of how those
parts function together as a whole.
This will not be easy. Taken separately, these parts
are very complex. Biocomplexity is about looking at
phenomena, whether they be weather or proteins or
human society, at many scales. Such a viewpoint will
let us identify the principles and patterns that operate
at multiple levels of organization in the earth's
systems, and across time and space.
Because of our planet's biocomplexity, organisms and
entire ecosystems in one region can be influenced
dramatically by physical and chemical changes occurring
thousands of miles away. For example, wildfires in
the western U.S. affect fisheries half a world away.
Mercury from very hot wildfires can be blown aloft
by high level winds and fall into rivers and lakes
far away. Fish consume food contaminated by the mercury,
presenting a human health hazard.
This is just one aspect of biocomplexity. There are
many more. Around the globe, scientists in many disciplines
collect and analyze environmental data on the stability
of the polar ice caps, the temperatures of tropical
oceans, and the health of species, forests, lakes
and rivers in the United States.
Biocomplexity is about combining these efforts in a
comprehensive way. It is an ambitious concept, but
one that could have enormous payoffs in the years
One payoff would be better environmental decision-making
on the part of governments, industries and individuals.
"Ecological forecasting" -- as some call it -- could
have far-reaching benefits for agriculture and other
industries dependent on changes in the environment.
Another payoff could be a better handling of the difficult
problem of non-native or invasive species.
One reason it's time to tackle this task is that we
now have the ability, the technologies, to grasp the
complexity of our environment.
From computational algorithms to mathematical models,
from remote sensing to new kinds of sensors, and of
course to genome sequencing and the molecular basis
of metabolism and heredity...the technologies have
arrived, as have the opportunities in research.
Finally, science and math education remains a priority
in this budget, as it must. Last year we got the not-so-good-news
about how our schools compare to other nations.
By 12th grade, our students are near the bottom. We
can and must do better. The request sustains our current
base of innovative activities -- and plants a few
new seeds as well.
One of those promising seeds is the new Graduate Teaching
Fellows program. The program may seem small at only
$7.5 million, but it is an important beginning with
a potential impact well beyond the dollars. It will
broaden graduate education, and boost the science,
engineering, and technology content in K through 12
I'll just mention a few other highlights before closing.
The Plant Genome Research Program will continue to
increase. Its funding will increase by $5 million
to a total of $55 million.
This builds on an existing research base of $20 million
-- bringing the total investment to $75 million. This
will provide the scientific underpinning in the future
to improve nutritional content of our food crops,
both in quality and yields.
A new start in the budget is the Network for Earthquake
Engineering Simulation. We are providing $8 million
in FY 2000 toward a total investment of $82 million
over the next five years. This is modeled after the
highly successful nanofabrication network NSF began
several years ago. This will lead to a national, fully-interconnected
network of major earthquake research facilities.
Finally, we will be continuing investments in a number
of major infrastructure projects. One is the modernization
of the South Pole Station, which remains on schedule
and on budget, thanks in large part to the forward
funding provided by the subcommittee in past years.
That covers the basics of the budget. Let me conclude
by adding that by its very timing, a budget for the
first year of a new millennium takes on added significance.
That applies doubly so to NSF. The year 2000 marks
the 50th Anniversary of the National Science Foundation.
Given the increase we have received in this very tight
budget environment, it is clear that this is a "golden
anniversary" investment. This is also an appropriate
time to step back and think about the long-term importance
of investments in science and engineering.
Unfortunately, our fast-paced world makes it hard for
us to focus beyond today's problems and concerns.
It's a challenge to make a case for investment in
our children's future.
Thankfully, the VA/HUD subcommittee has taken a more
long-term view, even though the payoffs from some
basic research may come ten or twenty years from now.
You have consistently supported NSF's investments over
the years in a bipartisan manner. For this, let me
thank you again. I look forward to working with all
of you to strengthen our nation's investment in the
future as we approach the next millennium.