One step closer. A House panel endorses NSF's vision of 17 ecological research stations.

House Panel Smiles on NSF

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

A House spending panel has nearly doubled the president's requested budget increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a bill that gives the green light to three major new research projects.

On Tuesday, the HUD-VA appropriations subcommittee endorsed a 6.2% increase for NSF in 2004, to $5.64 billion. The $329 million hike tops the $171 million requested by the Administration, and the percentage increase dwarfs that given to other programs in the panel's jurisdiction, which includes space, housing, veterans' affairs, and environmental protection. NASA's budget would rise by 1%, to $15.54 billion.

The biggest surprise in the NSF budget is $12 million to start building the National Ecological Observatories Network (NEON). NSF had twice before requested money for NEON, projected as a chain of 17 field stations, 16 in the United States and one in Antarctica, that would gather a wealth of environmental data. But legislators were dubious (Science, 20 June, p. 1869). The 2004 money would be a down payment on two stations, costing $20 million each, and lawmakers told NSF that it must document that NEON doesn't overlap with existing federal facilities before they would consider funding the rest of the $391 million network.

The spending panel also approved $25 million to begin work on NSF's next-generation ocean drilling program, a $128-million-a-year effort that was not scheduled to begin until 2005 (Science, 18 April, p. 410). The money will allow NSF to chip away at the $100 million needed to acquire and outfit a second drill ship. Likewise, the committee ordered NSF to spend "no less than" $8 million to begin design work on a $218 million high-energy physics experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory called Rare Symmetry Violating Processes. NSF had hoped to begin funding its construction in 2006, but a 2004 appropriation could move up the timetable by a year (Science, 14 September 2001, p. 1972). "This is the best news I've heard in months," says physicist Michael Marx, project manager for one of the instrument's two detectors.

Although NSF's research account would rise by $250 million, to $4.3 billion, its education programs would be held flat, at $905 million. Legislators trimmed $60 million from a $200-million-a-year program that teams universities with local schools to improve math and science instruction and applied the money to several other programs.

The full House probably won't take up the HUD-VA bill until after its August recess, and the Senate has yet to weigh in. And although it may be months before NSF's 2004 budget is settled, agency officials say the House panel's action is "a very positive step."

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