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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space National Science Foundation Fiscal 2003 Budget

May 22, 2002

The Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space held a hearing on May 22nd to discuss NSF's FY03 budget request as well as general federal research and development issues. Two panels of witnesses presented testimony. Panel one included Dr. Rita Colwell, Director, NSF, and Dr. John Marburger, Director, OSTP. Panel two included The Honorable Newt Gingrich, CEO, The Gingrich Group; Mr. John Podesta, Visiting Professor of Law, Georgetown Law Center; Dr. Alan I. Leshner, CEO, AAAS; Dr. Thomas McCoy, VP of Research, Montana State University; and Dr. Marsha R. Torr, VP of Research, Virginia Commonwealth University.

In his opening remarks Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) went on record in full support a 15% increase for NSF and a doubling over five years. Wyden stated that if Congress and the Administration could accomplish this, "America's scientific horizon would broaden immeasurably . . . [h]ighly promising scientific research is not taking place because the NSF simply can't fund it." Subcommittee Ranking Member Senator George Allen (R-VA) said continued innovative technology is key to a capable and competent workforce, noting that 60% of future jobs will require skills currently held by 20% of the workforce.

Dr. Colwell outlined NSF's FY03 budget request, highlighting the priority areas, initiatives, and facilities. Dr. Marburger discussed the President's FY03 R&D budget request. He discussed positive future outcomes of investments in science and technology and examples of the Administration's cross-cutting efforts in R&D. He also advocated the agency scorecard approach as a useful tool for science agencies.

Dr. Marburger was questioned about the need for balance across disciplines in the federal R&D budget. Marburger responded that Congress should not assume the President is not concerned with balance, but rather the Administration believes in setting priorities and improving management. Dr. Colwell also addressed the balance issue stating that all disciplines need attention. By focusing the mathematical sciences in this budget, NSF is targeting one field that will benefit all disciplines . When asked about NSF's priorities should the budget double, Dr. Colwell emphasized the need for growth in core research areas; maintaining leadership in information technology, nanotechnology, biocomplexity; and improving the scientific and engineering workforce.

Mr. Gingrich stated that the crisis in math/science/engineering education looms as large as any terrorist threat. He considers education as a national security priority. Gingrich advocates tripling the NSF budget and noted that nanoscale research is as profound for the 21st century as the theory of relativity was for the 20th. This area alone, he felt, should receive a $1 billion budget immediately, with 15% -20% yearly increases. Mr. Podesta said it is important to consider how the science and technology enterprise can contribute to national security and economic growth. He advocated doubling the NSF budget while providing balance among disciplines, eliminating research earmarks, recreating the Office of Technology Assessment (or contracting the National Academy for analytic studies, as Mr. Gingrich suggested), and supporting scientific freedom and openness. Dr. Leshner discussed advances in the physical sciences and benefits to the economy. He said balance and strong support over the entire science enterprise is critical to the future. The current trend is an increase in life sciences while other sciences remain flat or declining. He said we cannot afford a "taking turns" approach to science funding. A lag in one area leads to a lag in others.

Dr. McCoy stated that any doubling scenario should have a focus and EPSCoR should be part of that focus, noting that EPSCoR awakened Montana State University (MSU) to the importance of R&D. He discussed the tremendous growth in research areas at MSU and the integration of research and teaching. He noted that a major obstacle for many "less research intensive" states and institutions is a lack of infrastructure and emphasized the importance of fully funding NSF's new EPSCoR infrastructure program. Dr. Torr noted that Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is mostly undergraduate and these students would not have the same opportunities without federal research funding. While mentioning VCU's health sciences activities, she stated that VCU cannot rely on life sciences alone. The contribution of physical scientists seasoned by grants primarily from NSF is essential. She said funding from NSF helps to shape universities.

When questioned about how to get elected officials excited about science issues, Mr. Gingrich said scientists have an obligation to make a case to Members of Congress by describing the benefits of science that will directly affect them. Mr. Podesta agreed, adding that putting one or two pages of exciting science in the hands of members on a weekly basis would be beneficial. Mr. Gingrich later stated that Dr. Marburger should send to members once a week the five most interesting science topics and what support is needed. When asked what a larger NSF could do, Dr. Leshner said NSF could double every grant right away; that the opportunities lost are tremendous, and we risk lagging behind other nations in developing technology.

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