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Public Policy Report for 05/24/2002

NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION BUDGET REVIEWED BY SENATE APPROPRIATORS AND SENATE COMMERCE, SCIENCE, AND TRANSPORTATION SUBCOMMITTEE ON SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND SPACE - On May 15, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on VA-HUD-Independent Agencies held a hearing on the President's request for the NSF budget for FY2003. Subcommittee chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said she was taken aback by the administration's spartan request. To double the budget over five years, she said, NSF needs a 15% increase this year. She also expressed concern about the proposed program transfers, particularly Sea Grant, stating that it really belongs at NOAA where it has been an outstanding program. In Mikulski's view, the administration's request is really just an illusion of an increase. She also said that the committee is very concerned about the education of the next generation of scientists. Ranking member Kit Bond (R-MO) asked Presidential science advisor John Marburger to change the administration's views about the importance of the physical sciences. Bond said that scientists around the country say that there is not enough money for the physical sciences, and the high tech industries are worried because undergrad enrollment is down and there is a workforce shortage.

NSF Director Rita Colwell had no better explanation or justification for the proposed transfer of the Sea Grant program than she had for House appropriators who asked the same question last month. Mikulski made it clear that the appropriators will not agree to move the program. Colwell agreed with Mikulski's proposition that more funding is needed for the core sciences.

Marburger agreed that there is an imbalance in science funding, but said that the administration oppose arbitrary doubling. This brought a sharp rebuke from Bond, who pointed out that he and Mikulski had worked to bring about a doubling of the NSF budget. Marburger said that in subsequent years, the administration will look at the issue of balance, but that their concern was specific research priorities that served the nation, such as the war on terrorism and homeland defense.

Mikulski also asked about the need to attract undergraduates into science, particularly minorities, and noted that this budget cuts undergraduate programs by $10 million. Colwell replied NSF is integrating horizontally to link all programs to all levels of education. Even though funding for diversity programs is decreasing in one directorate, there are increases within the other directorates.

Intense discussion focused on the Major Research Equipment account. Bond asked the NSF Inspector General to testify about her findings on NSF's financial accounting for projects funded under this account. The Inspector General said that her office audited the large facility projects and found that despite NSF's efforts, there is still a need for improvement in management, especially the financial aspects. Because NSF uses multiple appropriated accounts, including research accounts, to fund these projects they can exceed the authorized spending limits. Further, she said, NSF cannot calculate the true project cost. NSF has agreed to put a deputy administrator/CFO in place and develop a process to calculate the true costs of a project by the end of the summer.

Just a week later, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space held a hearing that covered much the same ground. Subcommittee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) said that failure to invest in math and science is playing Russian roulette with our future. He noted that the Coalition for National Science Funding advocated a 15% increase for NSF this year and he strongly supports that figure. He also opposed the transfer of the Sea Grant program.

Seven witnesses, including Marburger, Colwell, AAAS President Alan Leshner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Tom McCoy, Vice-President for Research at Montana State University, and Marsha Torr, Vice-President for Research at Virginia Commonwealth University, answered a range of questions from the subcommittee members. Sen. Allen asked if excessive regulation imposed costs that eroded the funding available for research. Both Torr and McCoy said that the regulations, including financial management, human and animal welfare, and researcher safety were important, but that the grants were insufficient to cover the cost of compliance. Universities were forced to cover part of the cost from institutional funds or from the grants themselves. McCoy and Torr also addressed the need for funding for the smaller universities to bring facilities and equipment up-to-date so that they would have the capacity to compete for and perform the more sophisticated, cutting-edge research that is more commonly funded at the top 100 research institutions in the country. Gingrich urged scientists to fulfill their obligations as citizens by talking to their elected officials and by making the case for science as the basis for jobs, health, and national security.

Although he was not asked, Gingrich stated his opposition to the re-creation of the Office of Technology Assessment. He acknowledged the need for Congress to have good scientific advice, but advocated that Congress contract instead with the National Academies of Science.

HOUSE SCIENCE COMMITTEE REAUTHORIZATION OF NATIONAL SICENCE FOUNDATION SENT TO FULL HOUSE WITH PROVISION TO DOUBLE NSF BUDGET OVER FIVE YEARS - Just two weeks after the House Science subcommittee on Research approved the NSF reauthorization bill, the full House Science committee voiced its approval and sent the bill to the full House of Representatives for consideration. The bill authorizes 15% increases over each of the next three years, which, if appropriated and continued for yet another two years, would double the NSF budget in five years. As noted in our previous report, AIBS and other scientific societies had concern about language in the bill that appeared to encourage NSF to give special emphasis in its annual plan - the process by which funding is allocated among the directorates - to the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering. These concerns were expressed in letters from AIBS to committee members and in a meeting with committee staff. The language has now been changed to remove any unintentional suggestion of direction to NSF about priorities among disciplines. There is no reauthorization bill pending in the Senate at this time.

AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT CRITICIZED FOR DECISION TO STOP HIRING FOREIGN SCIENTISTS FOR AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH SERVICE - The Chronicle of Higher Education reported May 17 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided that it will no longer seek visas for foreign students and scientists to work in the agency's Agricultural Research Service laboratories. The ARS is an intramural research program. According to the Chronicle article, the decision is based on national security concerns. Foreign-born scientists and students who are not citizens and are currently working in USDA labs will be able to remain until their visas run out. They will not be permitted to apply for new visas. However, the new policy would not affect university research programs that receive USDA grants. Foreign-born scientists employed by universities will still be able to work with the USDA and seek grants for research. In addition, foreign researchers employed by universities could still work in the department's laboratories. This opens the possibility that foreign students and scientists currently employed by the ARS could continue to work in those laboratories if they are hired by a university. Although the Bush administration has plans to expand the review of visa applicants who want to study sensitive topics, the President's science advisor, John H. Marburger, has expressed reservations about this USDA policy.

AIBS AND THIRTY OTHER SCIENTIFIC ORGANIZATIONS SHOW CONGRESS HOW NSF FUNDING SERVES THE COUNTRY - On May 15, AIBS co-sponsored and joined with thirty other scientific organizations in the 8th Annual Exhibition and Reception of the Coalition for National Science Funding. This event gives scientific organizations and academic institutions an opportunity to demonstrate to members of Congress the return on investment in research in science, math, engineering and technology through funding for the National Science Foundation. One of the two AIBS posters featured the proposed National Ecological Observatory Network program. Congress is considering the administration's request to fund two prototype NEON sites this year. The other AIBS poster demonstrated the importance of museum collections, long-term ecological research, and climate change research in understanding the 1993 hanta virus outbreak in the southwest, research on which garnered NSF "Nifty-Fifty" recognition. Present from AIBS at the CNSF exhibit were Executive Director Richard O'Grady, Public Policy Director Adrienne Froelich, and Public Policy Representative Ellen Paul. Terry Yates, Vice-Provost for Research at the University of New Mexico, and a principal investigator on the hanta virus research, was also present. The event was organized by Nadine Lymn, Public Affairs Director for the Ecological Society of America, a member of AIBS. ESA presented a poster entitled The Nitrogen Paradox: Maximizing Benefits, Minimizing Risks. A display by the American Society of Plant Biologists, also a member of AIBS, demonstrated how genetic engineering can produce compounds that reduce food allergies.

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