Director of science agency foresees more budget cuts

The National Science Foundation (NSF) got slapped with a 3 percent budget cut in fiscal 2005 and is expected to face tight times again in the president's fiscal 2006 budget request due out next month, leaving new foundation director Arden Bement searching for ways to make the most of his lot.

The final fiscal 2005 budget "indicates that we're in a very difficult budget climate and that the administration puts a very high priority on reducing the budget deficit, and that's going to affect our programs in the discretionary budget, including research," Bement said in a Monday interview at NSF's Arlington, Va., headquarters. "On top of that, we're going to have to take a realistic view of the budget climate in setting our goals for the near term."

"Of course, my hope is that we'll continue to grow," he added, "but not at the rate expected under the Investing in America's Future Act of 2002," which authorized a doubling of NSF appropriations from fiscal 2003 through fiscal 2005.

Bement said he is working to stress to budgeters "the importance of investing in the future and the strong linkage between science investment, economic development and job creation if we're going to maintain our own."

The key to raising NSF's budgetary fortunes, he said, is to "convince the various science communities that they have to speak with one voice." Those communities include fields such as biology, engineering and math.

"They only weaken their case when they take a parochial point of view," Bement said. "It's important that the case we make is that science across the board is an investment priority and can lead to not only short-term benefits but longer-term benefits for the nation."

Bement noted that a nation with low savings levels such as the United States relies on investments in education and in research and development to stay ahead of its global competitors.

He said national priorities for research are set by the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Management and Budget, and that NSF follows those priorities.

"You'll find activities throughout our whole program reflecting those priorities," he said, pointing to homeland security R&D, nanotechnology, networking and information technology R&D, water resources and climate change, and "extreme events" like tsunamis and earthquakes.

"These are very strong [Bush] administration priorities, and NSF is a key player," he said. "Anything we can do to link our university research programs to the challenges facing the nation will enhance our chances for budget success."

Bement said most research agencies were involved in security-type activities before the Homeland Security Department was created. He said the department is mainly focused on obtaining existing technologies for the short term, and said he has been told by Homeland Security science and technology directorate chief Charles McQueary that even in the future, the department will depend on other agencies for long-term research.

Bement also said NSF's percent change in funding only lags agencies that are "more mission-oriented, addressing priorities such as the war on terrorism [and] homeland security."