A White House bill-signing ceremony is supposed to be a chance for the president to tout his accomplishments. But yesterday's signing of legislation reauthorizing programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) may have been more noteworthy for what wasn't said, and who wasn't there.
The bill, H.R. 4664, enshrines the idea of a 5-year doubling of NSF's budget, to $9.8 billion by 2007. That's a long-sought goal of science lobbyists, who say that the country's overall research portfolio has gotten out of balance as the budget of the much-larger National Institutes of Health doubled in the past 5 years to an expected $27 billion this year.
But White House officials don't support the doubling concept, saying that it's an arbitrary goal for any agency and fiscally irresponsible unless justified. So the final measure struck a compromise by making funding levels for the last 2 years subject to review by the Office of Management and Budget. As a result, President George W. Bush didn't mention the D-word in his more-than-brief remarks about the legislation, and he didn't invite anyone from the Senate, which had labeled its version of the bill the "NSF Doubling Act" and which contained several outspoken advocates of such a ramp-up.
Those omissions didn't go unnoticed among the audience, which included the heads of several scientific and professional societies. But most of the guests preferred to dwell on the positive, including Bush's ringing endorsement of the need to improve science and math education in U.S. elementary and secondary schools. "He said that as governor of Texas he focused on reading, but that now it's time for math and science," recalls Gerry Wheeler, head of the National Science Teachers Association. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, says that he was impressed by the president's "passion" for the idea of enlisting working scientists and engineers to strengthen public education.
White House supporters say the ceremony also demonstrated the Administration's regard for the job that NSF is doing. "It's basic research that will keep the country strong and protect our borders," says Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI), chair of the research panel of the House Science Committee, which crafted many of the provisions in the bill. "And the high quality of NSF peer review ensures that it funds the best research."