Lawmakers lament lack of funding for science agency

Legislators push for $6.1 billion in NSF funding for fiscal 2006.

A House lawmaker Thursday urged experts in the nanotechnology field to push members of Congress to increase funding for the National Science Foundation.

Actual NSF funding is nowhere near authorization levels while money for the National Institutes of Health has doubled, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said at a Capitol Hill meeting on nanomaterials sponsored by the Federation of Materials Societies. NSF is the lead agency involved in the federal government's multi-agency nanotechnology research initiative.

Holt, a physicist, acknowledged that NIH produces key technologies, but he said "for us to use the NIH funding ... we've got to look at our base. The instrumentations and the technologies and the methodologies" that help with many agency programs "in many cases come from NSF."

Holt, House Science Energy Subcommittee Chairwoman Judy Biggert, R-Ill., and House Science Technology Subcommittee Chairman Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., have been circulating a letter among members that calls for $6.1 billion in NSF funding for fiscal 2006 instead of the $5.75 billion proposed by President Bush.

"We keep talking and talking about research and development, and yet I see a slipping in comparison to other countries," Biggert said. The United States is still an R&D leader, "but we are slipping badly."

Biggert "thought we'd made some pretty good strides in Congress, but you see the dollars sliding for R&D," she said. "If we're going to maintain our position in the global economy," the United States must have a competitive R&D policy.

"We cannot compete with the low wages" workers abroad are willing to accept, "so we have to have the jobs and the businesses that can produce" products that will drive the market, Biggert said. Developments in the industry will produce new products "that will impact energy, ... information technology and homeland security."

One federal program to feel the effects of decreased science funding is the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program (ATP). Bush did not request any funding for the program in his fiscal 2006 budget and has sought to cut the program in previous years.

It would be a "disaster to cancel this program," said Mark Kryder, chief technology officer and senior vice president of research at Seagate Technology and a Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor.

"This program was highly successful, no doubt about it. [ATP] brought the whole community together to work together," he said. Without this level of research, he said, technologies like Apple's iPod digital music player, would not have come to the market as quickly, Kryder said. Seagate is currently working on an ATP project for heat-assisted magnetic recording, he said.

Some nanotech industry representatives say ATP is particularly helpful to nanotech companies because of the difficulty they face in obtaining funding to help commercialize their products.

But congressional critics have argued that the program amounts to corporate welfare.