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White House heaps accolades, and money, on National Science Foundation

President Bush proposed a 5 percent budget increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in fiscal 2003, well above the 1.3 percent boost he proposed in fiscal 2002. The request fulfilled expectations that Bush would request a bigger increase for federal research on basic science and information technology this year.

Bush proposed increasing the NSF budget to $5.03 billion, up from $4.79 billion, including increases in the size of NSF awards to an average of $120,000--up from about $111,000 in the previous budget year.

"The future of our nation--indeed, the future of our world--[is] more dependent than ever before upon advances in science and technology," NSF director Rita Colwell said in an afternoon budget briefing.

Colwell noted that the budget would allow NSF to hire about 70 new staffers, the first time in a decade it has been able to increase its staff.

Bush's budget request praised NSF for its financial management, as well as for its process for making grants, which is mostly competitive. The administration also noted that NSF's investments have resulted in "rich dividends," including paying for research that resulted in eight Nobel Prizes in 2001. Further, external panels assessed NSF programs over the past two years and found them to be "of high quality and efficiently managed."

"The NSF is the leading performer among federal agencies funding basic research," the budget said.

The budget also notes that NSF played a pivotal role in developing the Internet, including supporting NSFNET, a project that eventually led to today's Internet, from 1986 to 1995. The administration also said NSF's backing of computer science research led to the creation of the graphic browser Mosaic, which in turn precipitated the creation of the Web.

The praise differs from last year's budget, which focused on management reforms necessary at NSF. The fiscal 2002 budget also called for a 20.6 percent cut in the agency's funding for research equipment and an 0.5 percent reduction in research and related activities.

The proposal raised concerns within the science and research community, which lobbied Congress to provide more funding than Bush requested. Congress complied by providing $4.79 billion in funding for NSF, even though Bush had requested only $4.47 billion.

In a separate breakout on research and development in the fiscal 2003 budget, the administration notes that it is proposing a funding boost in two areas that would include NSF. Bush proposes $1.9 billion for the multi-agency Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program (NITRD), which aims to make advances in computing. NSF's portion of NITRD is proposed at $678 million.

The overall R&D budget also calls for $679 million, or a 17 percent increase, for a multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative, which focuses long-term research on the manipulation of matter. NSF would receive $221 million of the funding for the initiative.

Bush also proposes increasing the funding for NSF's math and science partnership to $200 million, up $40 million. Colwell said NSF is working closely with the Education Department to ensure that the program is reaching elementary and secondary schools nationwide.