Science agency chiefs laud Bush's budget request

The private sector alone cannot fully fund basic research, and the federal government should make funding it a national priority, a senator said Wednesday during a hearing on the importance of basic research to U.S. competitiveness.

During a Senate Commerce Technology, Innovation and Competitiveness Subcommittee hearing, Chairman John Ensign, R-Nev., told a panel of agency heads that federally funded research has played a critical role in creating viable commercial products and should continue to feed U.S. innovation.

"Basic research is the key to innovation," Ensign said. Even in tight budget years, he said policymakers need to fund basic research and infrastructure priorities, which are not a drain on the economy.

Funding "transformational research," even when research may result in "dead ends," is critical to U.S. innovation, he said.

Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation, said his agency works at the "frontier" and its research has resulted in marketplace examples such as the development of the Internet, the Web browser and bar codes. Its high-risk research allows NSF to anticipate from where the "next big move of the frontier will come," he said.

While President Bush said his top budget priority is to halve the deficit, his fiscal 2007 funding request included "pro-growth" strategies like a 2 percent increase in non-defense research and development spending, said John Marburger, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. Non-defense R&D spending is up $1.1 billion, reaching $59 billion, in Bush's request.

Bush's plan is "exactly what we need at the right time," said William Jeffrey, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, whose mission is to develop measurement and standards tools to enable the develop and manufacture products. It will increase "our capability and capacity."

But the budget request is targeted. "This budget is about priorities," Marburger said. Those priorities are folded into Bush's American competitiveness initiative, which includes key areas of investment in the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's science office and NIST's "core programs."

The budget would target biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology and manufacturing, as well as energy sources and biometrics, and it would respond to international standards challenges that U.S. companies face, he said in his testimony.

As the budget process continues, Marburger said the administration's plea to Congress is to keep the proposal "free of earmarks" and "reject unnecessary new programs and bureaucratic burdens and to keep the initiative clean and simple."

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