Senators blast administration on agency science funding imbalance

Lawmakers on Thursday again criticized top science and technology officials in the Bush administration for their failure to boost National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for the physical sciences when compared with funding for the life sciences at other agencies.

"I am alarmed and troubled by this disparity because the decline in funding for the physical sciences has put our nation's capabilities for scientific innovation at risk and, equally important, at risk of falling behind other industrial nations," said Missouri Republican Christopher (Kit) Bond, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NSF.

"I believe this is not an NSF budget, it's an OMB budget," Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., added in reference to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The lawmakers spoke at a hearing on the administration's fiscal 2004 budget requests for NSF and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). At the hearing, NSF Inspector General Christine Boesz cited continued concerns over the delay in implementing recommended changes to NSF's management of large facility projects.

"We have taken the suggestions of the inspector general to heart," said NSF Director Rita Colwell. She likened the changes to "changing tires while you're going 60 miles per hour."

Bond recommended that NSF "pull off the interstate for a minute and hire the people you need" because "if you're going 60 miles per hour and you don't know where you're headed, that's a problem."

Bond and Mikulski criticized the administration for failing to request more money for NSF after the president signed a law last fall authorizing the agency to begin doubling its budget. Bond noted that the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended that from fiscal 2004 through fiscal 2008, "funding for physical sciences and engineering across all relevant agencies be adjusted upward to bring them collectively to parity with the life sciences."

He called the proposed $5.48 billion for fiscal 2004 "a paltry $171 million, or 3.2 percent, increase" over fiscal 2003 and said, "I have that feeling that Charlie Brown must have had when he asked Lucy to hold the ball he was kicking."

OSTP chief John Marburger and Colwell said the administration prepared its fiscal 2004 budget before completion of the fiscal 2003 appropriations process in Congress. But Bond challenged this by saying that the Senate and House committee reports on the budget had been completed and that both offered significantly higher increases to NSF.

Bond and Mikulski also criticized the proposal for a 70 percent cut in funding for the "tech talent" program, which benefits undergraduates in engineering and mathematics.

Bond also pressed the officials, including National Science Board Chairman Warren Washington, on the failure to meet a statutory requirement to provide a separate fiscal 2004 budget request for the science board. Washington and Marburger promised to comply.

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