NSF Not Yet Seeing Double

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

Where's the doubling? That's what lobbyists were wondering yesterday after they heard Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), extol President George W. Bush's 2004 request for $5.48 billion for her agency.

Although Colwell spoke glowingly about a 9% increase as a sign of Bush's "tremendous support for NSF and its mission," some in the audience took away a more somber message. "I see a 4% increase," says the American Mathematical Society's Samuel Rankin, head of the Coalition for National Science Funding, which pushed for a law enacted last fall that endorses--but does not fund--15% annual boosts for NSF toward a doubling of its budget in 5 years.

The difference stems from uncertainty over NSF's current budget, which Congress has yet to complete. The White House is using as a base its 2003 request, revised to show a meager 3.5% boost over 2002. Given that low starting point, the agency appears to be slated for a $453 million hike. The increase covers a plethora of programs that NSF has designated as priorities, from $120 million more for the physical sciences (a 12.7% increase) to a 20% boost (from $25,000 to $30,000) in annual stipends for graduate research fellows.

The catch is that when Congress finally passes it, NSF's 2003 budget may approach or hit many of those targets, leaving the 2004 request looking pretty shabby. The Senate has approved the increase in stipends, for example, and the House has endorsed a boost of that magnitude for the physical sciences. Some programs, such as a congressional favorite that provides money for have-not states to make them more competitive in garnering federal research grants, may even receive more in 2003 than NSF is requesting for them in 2004.

Amid those uncertainties, the biggest surprise in NSF's 2004 budget is the White House's support for major new research facilities. That account would receive $202 million for seven projects, a $76 million jump. Work on five is already under way, including the three largest: The Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, a high-altitude plane to gather environmental data, and a neutrino array under the South Pole. The budget also contains plans to seek funding for three projects in future years, a response to a congressional demand that NSF rank all the projects that its oversight body, the National Science Board, has approved.

The board's chair, Warren Washington, is pleased with the proposed spending for large projects, which he says "cleans out the pipeline." However, he laments the gap between the overall 2004 request and what NSF would need to stay on a doubling path. "It's not good news," he says. "It looks like the executive branch is being stingy."

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