Congress OKs NSF Doubling Bill

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) tries hard to remain apolitical. But last week it benefited from some straightforward political horse-trading that paved the way for the agency to achieve one of its most cherished goals: A congressional promise to double NSF's budget in 5 years.

Science lobbyists have spent years arguing that the recent ramp-up for the National Institutes of Health needed to be balanced by a similar boost for NSF, which funds scientific research across disciplines. Last month Congress appeared ready to sign off on the idea as part of a reauthorization of NSF's programs--until Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) applied a last-minute hold on the bill as it prepared to go before the full Senate (Science, 25 October, p. 719). The real objection, however, came from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which felt that doubling was a crude budgeting tool and a violation of its efforts to hold down domestic spending. The parliamentary maneuver infuriated Senate Democrats, who felt they had been blindsided.

But House members who had passed a similar bill in June didn't give up. They talked with OMB officials, who quickly offered a compromise--a 5-year bill that made the last 2 years contingent on a review by OMB of NSF's progress toward a series of management goals, such as improved customer service and better use of resources, that are part of a presidential good-government initiative. That allowed the White House to maintain that it hadn't handed NSF a blank check and to enshrine the concept that bigger budgets were a reward for good management. At the same time, congressional supporters of doubling could say that they had achieved their goal of raising NSF's budget from its current $4.8 billion to $9.8 billion in 2007.

The bill (H.R. 4664), which the House and Senate passed within a few hours of each other last Thursday and is now awaiting the president's signature, doesn't actually give NSF a dime. Annual spending is set by appropriators, who have yet to pass any domestic spending bills for the 2003 fiscal year that began 1 October. But "we think it's great," says NSF's David Stonner, head of legislative affairs. "It demonstrates strong congressional support for NSF." The bill is loaded with congressional demands, too, including more than a dozen reports on topics ranging from improving math and science education to building big research facilities.

Related site
Legislative site containing H.R. 4664

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