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House Democratic leaders this morning strongly signaled their support for including research, training, and scientific equipment in a massive economic recovery package being crafted this month. The funding is most likely to come by expanding existing programs at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and elsewhere that could financially support a lot more qualified scientists than they currently do. Scientific organizations have proposed a long list of such projects that they feel meet the intent of the proposed legislation, which could exceed $800 billion over 2 years. Now it's looking more and more likely that science programs will get a chunk of that money—but no one yet knows what fraction of the big pie.
Education chairman Representative George Miller (D-CA) spoke after a 2-hour forum arranged by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that brought together the chairs of eight House committees responsible for cobbling together the recovery plan. He explained that programs such as NSF's Major Research Instrumentation for universities and its Robert Noyce Scholarship program for undergraduates interested in becoming math and science teachers are already doing what Congress hopes to accomplish through the stimulus package. "We want to lay down the foundation for long-term innovation," he said. "Part of that includes fixing the holes in our research labs, and making sure that our children are taught by good teachers."
The additional money isn't an earmark, says another participant, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), chair of the House science committee. "We're not talking about money for Oak Ridge [National Laboratory] to buy some more test tubes. This money would be distributed via the peer-review process at NSF or DOE, based on its judgment about the best proposals it has received."
During the hearing, Miller referred to the "hat trick of starting with discovery, moving to innovation, and ending up with jobs" that flows from federal funding of basic research. Pelosi echoed those comments by noting that her inclusion of Massachusetts Institute of Technology geophysicist Maria Zuber and former Lockheed-Martin CEO Norman Augustine alongside prominent economists Martin Feldstein, Mark Zandi, and Robert Reich was no accident. "This recovery plan must be about the future," she said. "It's about innovation, which begins in the classroom. ... You have to have the labs to attract talent, and talent attracts capital."