House bill would double NSF funding in five years

In a move that lawmakers said would help guarantee the nation's economic competitiveness in future decades, the House of Representatives voted in June to double the budget of the National Science Foundation in five years.

Aug 1st, 2002

Vincent Kiernan, Washington Editor

In a move that lawmakers said would help guarantee the nation's economic competitiveness in future decades, the House of Representatives voted in June to double the budget of the National Science Foundation in five years. The bill, H.R. 4664, passed easily with a 397-to-25 vote. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it likely will receive a warm reception.

The bill would authorize $5.5 billion in spending by the foundation in fiscal 2003, which begins Sept. 1. That represents a 15% increase over its 2002 budget. The bill increases the budget by an additional 15% in 2004 and 2005. If future increases keep pace, that would double NSF's budget in five years.

However, because of the complicated process that Congress follows in approving spending by federal agencies, the bill by itself would not guarantee any increase in the agency's budget even if it passes into law. That's because, even after a bill such as H.R. 4664 is signed into law, Congress must still pass an annual appropriations bill that sets a federal agency's spending for a given fiscal year; the amount of the spending in the appropriations bill can be more or less than that in an authorizing bill such as H.R. 4664, and the appropriations bill has the final word.

Another question is whether the Bush administration, faced with other demands for spending, would approve a plan to double NSF's budget. Bush asked for about a 3% increase in spending for NSF in 2003. That said, the overwhelming support for H.R. 4664 likely would nudge the powerful lawmakers who sit on the House and Senate appropriations committees to increase spending for the agency, and the Senate in the past has been receptive to sharp increases in NSF's budget.

Moreover, the move would follow the example of treatment of the National Institutes of Health, whose budget Congress has been steadily increasing on a path toward doubling it in five years. "It is time to give NSF the money it needs," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican who chairs the House Science Committee.

Michigan Rep. Vernon Ehlers, a Republican who is also a physicist, told the House that basic scientific research can produce important, tangible benefits. As a case in point, he cited the development of lasers. "In the 1930s, there was some research done on a very esoteric topic called stimulated coherent emission of radiation. This was theoretical work. It was very low-cost work," Ehlers told fellow lawmakers. After World War II, the physicist Charles Townes realized that the process could be used to produce a laser, Ehlers recounted. Although lasers too were a laboratory curiosity at first, "they have become ubiquitous. We use them for everything from lining up sewers to making certain that the tiles in the ceiling of a building are level, to conducting surgery of various types, and on to many other uses," he said. "All of this is based on the initial research work done in 1930. If we want to continue to enjoy economic growth and expansion, if we want to continue to lead the world, we also have to continue leading the world in basic research."

"Investment in research and development is one of the single largest contributing factors to the nation's past, present, and future economic growth," said Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat. "The U.S. high-technology industry spends more on R&D than . . . any other industry, but because corporations feel acute pressure to focus scarce research dollars on market-driven product development, the federal government must play an integral role in the longer-term basic research that leads to fundamental innovations."

Some lawmakers said that the bill would help the economy by improving the training of scientists and engineers and by increasing the number of trained technical workers. The bill includes $50 million in 2003 for NSF's Advanced Technological Education Program, which aims to increase the supply of technicians for high-technology companies by improving instruction in community colleges, and an additional $55 million in 2004.

"Meeting the demand for high-tech workers by both our modernizing manufacturing sector and our new-economy enterprises requires strengthening undergraduate education in science, mathematics, and technology at associate-degree-granting colleges, where nearly half of all undergraduate students are enrolled," said Rep. David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina.

"We must do a better job of training the next generation of scientists and engineers," said Rep. Constance Morella, a Republican from Maryland. "Fewer and fewer Americans are undertaking technical careers, accepting the torch from elder scientists and building on the accomplishments of generations past." The bill, she and her colleagues think, will help do just that.

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