NSF May Get Windfall

Liz is a staff writer for Science.

Funding for three Smithsonian research centers would be transferred next year to the National Science Foundation (NSF) under a White House budget strategy aimed at rewarding agencies for their management prowess. Science has learned that the move is part of a proposed shift of roughly $120 million from several agencies to NSF in the 2003 budget now being prepared. Parts of the $30 million water resources program at the U.S. Geological Survey and the $60 million university-based Sea Grant program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would also be moved.

Last week, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) wrote Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small that it intended to take $35 million away from his agency's 2003 budget request and give it to NSF. The proposal, still under wraps by the Bush Administration, surprised Smithsonian officials wrestling with their own controversial plan to restructure science at the institution's 16 museums, National Zoo, and half-dozen research centers. Scientists at the affected institutes--the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute--would be free to compete for funding under NSF's regular programs.

NSF director Rita Colwell declined to comment on the proposed transfer, and an OMB official said the agency doesn't comment on ongoing budget negotiations. But an administration official noted that the transfer is consistent with a management initiative that favors peer review and "market-based" competition to ensure the best science. Last week OMB director Mitch Daniels foreshadowed the move during a Washington, D.C., speech in which he singled out NSF for praise and warned other agencies to shape up or suffer the consequences. "Programs [like NSF's] that perform well, that are accountable to you as taxpayers for reaching real results and measuring and attaining those results, deserve to be singled out, fortified, and strengthened," Daniels said. "Conversely, programs that make no such attempt or fail to deliver really need to be scrutinized, and the money we are now investing in them redeployed to higher purposes."

Research at the Smithsonian has been squeezed for the past 20 years as the institution has struggled with ever-expanding needs for renovations and new construction. The situation came to a head last spring when Small proposed closing two research centers and rearranging scientific research throughout the institution (ScienceNOW, 10 April). Although Congress stepped in to protect those research centers, the Smithsonian has appointed a commission to review its science agenda. "It would be very unfortunate if [the proposed transfer] came to be," says Jeremy Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and chair of the commission.

The Smithsonian has asked OMB to reconsider its proposal in the next round of budget negotiations. Meanwhile, OMB has requested that Smithsonian and NSF leaders map out a plan by mid-January to implement these changes.

With reporting by Jeffrey Mervis.

Related sites

The National Science Foundation
The Smithsonian Institution

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