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NSF & Congress


Dr. Kelly

Dr. Eamon M. Kelly
National Science Board

Before the Subcommittee on
VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Committee on
Appropriations U.S. House of Representatives
May 16, 2001

Chairman Walsh, Ranking Member Mollohan, and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify before you. I am Eamon Kelly, Chairman of the National Science Board and President Emeritus and Professor in the Payson Center for International Development & Technology Transfer at Tulane University.

On behalf of the National Science Board, I thank the Subcommittee for its commitment to long-term investments in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Your support has enabled the scientific community to provide a broad base of research and education activities that have contributed to our Nation's well-being. The public is increasingly aware that science and technology contribute to growth of the economy after the phenomenal 1990s. People seem to recognize that innovations improve the quality of life and that benefits accrue to the entire society, not just to a few industries or entrepreneurs.

The President affirmed the importance of science and technology on March 28, stating that "Science and technology have never been more essential to the defense of the nation and the health of our economy."

In agreement with the President's statement, I would like to comment on the National Science Foundation's FY 2002 budget request and then highlight some critical policy issues affecting the health of the science and engineering enterprise.

The National Science Foundation's Budget Request

First, in its role as governing board of the Foundation, the National Science Board has approved and supports the National Science Foundation's budget request for Fiscal Year 2002 and endorses the submission. Adequate funding for the Foundation's priority areas in Fiscal Year 2002 will allow the National Science Foundation to do what it does best: provide the Nation with the people, ideas, and tools needed to generate new knowledge and new technologies. Dr. Rita Colwell will discuss the specifics of that budget request in her testimony. I commend my colleague for her far-sighted and energetic leadership of the broad scope of activities in the National Science Foundation's portfolio.

The Health of the Science and Engineering Enterprise: Some Issues

I also want to touch briefly on the broader context for the National Science Foundation's activities and contributions. In addition to serving as the governing board of the Foundation, the National Science Board, by law, advises the President and Congress on science and engineering policy, and is responsible for assessing and making recommendations on national policy issues for research and education. In that capacity, the National Science Board has recently addressed and issued recommendations on some critical issues affecting U.S. science and engineering. These include research, education, and assessment on the environment, the U.S. role in international science and engineering, and the quality of K-16 education.

Recently, we have begun two important new studies: one on the national science and engineering infrastructure; a second on national workforce policies. The latter study is examining the collection of policies and practices, including immigration and higher education, that affect the composition and adequacy of our science and technology workforce.

There is one Board effort to which I want to draw your particular attention and to say a few extra words: that is, the issue of the adequacy of our investment in science and engineering and the process we use within the Federal government for allocating resources to research within the budget process.

(a)    Federal Investment in Science and Engineering

It has been said that future historians will label the 21st century the "science and technology century." Clearly we are on the edge of exciting discoveries and radically new technologies in many scientific fields. To turn this potential into reality requires substantial and sustained Federal investment in basic research.

The new knowledge and technologies emerging today are a tribute to Federal research investments made years ago in a spirit of bipartisanship. When those investments began, no one could foresee their future impact. Revolutionary advances in these fields--such as those in information technology, geographic information systems, genetics, and medical technologies such as MRI, ultrasound, and digital mammography, to mention just a few--remind us that although science and engineering require long-term, high-risk investments, they also hold great promise of high payoffs. These payoffs affect all aspects of American life: our economy, the workforce, our educational systems, the environment, and our national security.

Despite the recognition of the widespread benefits that result from Federally supported scientific research, we are seriously under-investing in basic research. Of our $10 trillion Gross Domestic Product, the Federal government budgets $5 billion to basic research and general science, which represents only five-ten thousandths of one percent of the Nation's Gross Domestic Product. The President, members of Congress, the Republican and Democratic parties all speak in favor of investing in basic research.

Balance among investments in the basic sciences through the National Science Foundation and other agencies is also important. As Congressional leaders have pointed out, the success of the National Institutes of Health's efforts to cure deadly diseases such as cancer depends heavily on the underpinning basic research supported by the National Science Foundation.

In a speech before AAAS on May 3, Larry Lindsey stated that "the average annual real rate of return on corporate investment in America is about 9 percent." Compare that to the conservative estimate that the return on Federal investment in basic research is about 30 percent.

The recently issued report by the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, led by Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, clearly states the importance and the current condition of scientific research and education to America's world leadership. I quote:

"Our systems of basic scientific research and education are in serious crisis.... If we do not invest heavily and wisely in rebuilding these two core strengths, America will be incapable of maintaining its global position long into the 21st century."

As this Subcommittee recognizes, the National Science Foundation is a major contributor both to scientific research and science education. In fact, the Foundation accounts for 54 percent of Federal funding for basic research and general science.

Federal investment in the basic sciences through the Foundation have produced

  • New industries, such as E-commerce and biotechnology,
  • New medical technologies, such as MRI and genetic mapping,
  • New discoveries with great future promise, such as nanoscale science, cognitive neuroscience, and biocomplexity.

In addition, the National Science Foundation supports innovative education programs from kindergarten through graduate school, educating the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Clearly, there is an important link between Federal investment in basic research through the National Science Foundation, the vitality of our K-12 and higher education systems in math and science, the talent available for the workforce, and the successful achievement of national goals.

(b)   Allocation of Federal Resources

Even if Federal investment were to increase substantially, the difficult issue of how to allocate the funds would remain. For the past two years, at the request of national policy makers, the Board has grappled with how the Federal government should set priorities and allocate its approximately $84 billion annual budget for defense and non-defense research and development. That question is critically important, given the growing opportunities for discovery and the inevitable limits on Federal spending.

On May 21 and 22, the Board's Committee on Strategic Science and Engineering Policy Issues, which I chair, will host a stakeholder symposium to discuss our findings to date and evaluate potential approaches to Federal budget coordination and priority setting.

At this stage of our analysis, based on our discussion with Executive branch representatives and Congressional staff, the Board suggests that the Federal budget process in both the Executive branch and the Congress would benefit from instituting a continuing advisory mechanism within both the White House and the Congress for considering U.S. research needs and opportunities within the framework of the broad Federal research portfolio.

A possible process would include an evaluation of the current Federal portfolio for research in light of national goals and would draw on systematic, independent expert advice, studies of the costs and benefits of research investments, and analyses of available data. The process would identify areas ready to benefit from greater investment, address long-term needs and opportunities for Federal missions and responsibilities, and ensure world-class fundamental science and engineering capabilities.

In addition to an improved process, a strategy is needed to ensure commitment by departments, agencies and programs to gather timely, accessible data that could be used to monitor and evaluate Federal investments. The Federal government would need to invest in the research necessary to build the intellectual infrastructure in the higher education sector (1) to analyze substantive effects on the economy and quality of life of Federal support for science and technology and (2) to improve methods for measuring returns on public investments in research.

The appropriate level of Federal investment and the allocation of Federal funds are keystone issues for the science and engineering enterprise. They are also extremely difficult, complex issues for policy makers.

Mr. Chairman, at this point I would like to close my formal remarks. I thank the Subcommittee for its long-time support of the science community, especially the National Science Foundation, and for allowing me to comment on critical national policy concerns, as well as on the Foundation's budget request. I look forward to future opportunities for discussion of these highly important national issues.