The chair of a House of Representatives spending panel has kept his promise to boost funding for education at the National Science Foundation next year as part of the continued growth of NSF's budget. But in a year when the pace of the congressional budget process has been reduced to a crawl, it could be a long time before NSF knows how much money it will actually receive.
In the first congressional action on NSF's 2011 budget request, a bill marked up yesterday by the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee (CJS) for appropriations would increase funding for education programs by 7.8%, to $958 million. That compares with the Administration's request for a 2.2% rise. The additional $66 million is financed largely by a slight reduction in NSF's $6 billion request for its research account. At the same time, the committee preserved NSF's overall request for a 7.2% increase, to $7.4 billion, an extraordinary vote of confidence for basic research in a time of fiscal belt-tightening. Further details will be released when the bill goes before the full appropriations committee.
Subcommittee chair Representative Alan Mollohan (D–WV) had telegraphed his interest in putting more into NSF's precollege education account during a 24 March hearing on the agency's budget request. His first question to then NSF Director Arden Bement highlighted the discrepancy between an 8% boost for research and a 2% growth in education programs. Mollohan appeared unhappy with Bement's answer that the need to stimulate the economy drove the Administration's decision to give the lion's share of the increase to its six research directorates and that NSF's education programs "are highly leveraged" with other activities across the foundation. Mollohan also suggested that NSF should play a bigger role in scaling up findings from education research that it has funded, an activity that Bement said would be better handled by the Department of Education.
Some members wanted NSF to go even further. Representative Michael Honda (D–CA) urged Bement to explain how NSF "could embed" its research findings to help individual school districts do a better job of teaching science. And Representative Frank Wolf (R–VA) asked Bement what NSF would do if a local district asked NSF to take over its science programs, assuming that the constitutional provision making education a local function were somehow suspended.
Although the legislators were speaking theoretically, pending changes in the committee's leadership could add importance to such idle musings. Mollohan was defeated in the Democratic primary last month and will be leaving office at the end of the year. A former chair of the subcommittee, Wolf is the ranking minority member and could resume his post if the Republicans win control of the House in November. And Honda would move up in the pecking order if the Democrats retain a majority.
Another wild card in the budget deck is the fact that Congress has not approved a 2011 budget resolution that sets the total amount available for each of the 12 spending subcommittees. So the CJS panel may end up with less than the $60 billion that it allocated yesterday. Plus, given the press of other business and partisan politics, Congress may decide to delay final action on civilian spending bills until after the November election.