Science Moves to the Front Burner

By Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY, 24th)
November 2006

Science and technology can give us tools to address some of the most important and difficult challenges facing our nation. We won’t be able to eliminate our addiction to oil, reduce our vulnerability to terrorism, or remain economically competitive if we don’t have the world’s best minds in this and future generations working to make new scientific discoveries and develop new technologies.

For the first time in years, science and technology—and the vital role they play in ensuring America’s future economic competitiveness—are receiving the attention they deserve, and they are on the brink of receiving commensurate funding.

The dramatically improved policy landscape can be attributed, in part, to the National Academy of Sciences report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which took Washington by storm. Prior to the release of that report, the competitiveness issue was frankly not on the front burner. Now it is.

Even in the highly divisive atmosphere that now prevails in Washington, there is unity on the fundamentals about competitiveness, and the President as well as Congress, and both political parties are touting their efforts to increase spending on physical science research and to increase the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education.

Most important, Congress is likely to approve substantial increases in funding for three key physical science agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

These three agencies are especially critical because they’re not focused on advancing any single government mission, but rather on strengthening the nation’s overall capacity in science and engineering through the support of basic research and, in the case of NSF, education. They are the right agencies to concentrate on.

They are the agencies for which the President requested significant spending increases in his fiscal 2007 budget as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative he announced in his State of the Union message.

The conspicuous request for those increases in a very tight budget that was not kind to any other non-security, non-military spending was pretty remarkable. But perhaps even more amazing has been the Congressional response—namely, we’ve gone along with it.

A number of Members of Congress, including me, have been calling for these increases for years (as have science groups, such as the American Physical Society). And we have had some important allies, most notably Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, who chairs the House panel that funds NSF and NIST. But all of us were voices in the wilderness. Now we’ve got company.

While final spending bills for these key agencies have yet to be hammered out, both the House and Senate have passed bills that include the money to fully fund the President’s request, and at some point we will send to the President fiscal 2007 spending bills that will include major increases for the three agencies as part of a planned 10-year doubling of their budgets.

So there has been tremendous progress, and it will mean that American colleges and universities will have more money for research and higher education. And that will mean that the nation is taking some important steps to preparing for the future.

On the education side, frankly, the picture isn’t quite as rosy. While Congress has increased spending for education in recent years, we need to be doing more to focus specifically on improving STEM education at the K-12 and undergraduate levels. And NSF needs to play an important role in that, as it has historically.

My one disappointment with the President’s proposals was that they did not include substantial increases for NSF’s education programs. NSF has unparalleled expertise in STEM education, it awards funds competitively, and it is uniquely placed to bring universities, community colleges and school districts together. Its summer institutes back in the 1960s are still viewed as a high water mark in federal efforts to improve what we now call STEM education. So we ought to be making greater use of NSF.

The NSF education program that I’m most enthusiastic about is, not surprisingly, one I created along with Senator Jay Rockefeller. The reason we created it is that we believe—and research has now borne out this belief—that the key to improving STEM education is improving the quality of the classroom teacher.

The program, the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, provides grants to colleges and universities to award scholarships to top science, math and engineering majors who agree to teach at the K-12 level two years for each year they receive aid.

The Noyce program, which has only been funded for a few years, is beginning to show results. But the funding is small—less that $10 million. I want to see the program increase over the next several years, as the NSF budget increases, to around the $40 million level to create the number of teachers called for in the Gathering Storm report.

Back in June, the House Science Committee passed a bill, H.R. 5358, the Science and Mathematics for Competitiveness Act, that authorizes the needed increases for the Noyce program.

The bill also includes funding authorization and language for some other key programs including the Math and Science Partnerships, which bring together universities and school districts to improve K-12 education; and a program to create centers at universities to improve undergraduate STEM education. The experts point out that undergraduate education is really the linchpin of the system because it’s where we get our next generation of teachers.

Also back in June, the Science Committee passed a bill, H.R. 5356, the Research for Competitiveness Act, that addresses some of the Gathering Storm report’s recommendations on accelerating innovative science and engineering research. The bill expands NSF’s early career research grants program and authorizes new early career research grants programs at NSF and DOE, modeled on the former President’s Young Investigator Awards program, that encourages industry to support promising young research faculty conducting basic research by providing federal matching funds.

Our Science Committee bills are bipartisan, and they are targeted—they focus on improving existing programs, and the funding included in the bills is restrained and based on thoughtful calculations of how much is needed.

Unfortunately, the Science Committee bills have been stalled by a handful of conservative House Members who are unwilling to see us increase spending on almost any domestic program and by some of the more ideological elements within the White House. In the face of their opposition, the House leadership has not been willing to move the bills forward. That’s a missed opportunity.

We have not given up, though. The Science Committee will keep pushing on science and engineering research, and on math and science education, until the very end of this Congress. The elements in the White House who are more kindly disposed to the legislation are working on their colleagues; House and Committee leaders are still talking, and no one knows what will happen when Congress returns in November.

In the meantime, the Senate introduced its bipartisan competitiveness package in September after months of negotiation. The introduction of that package is good news because it demonstrates the Senate’s commitment to this issue, but I’d like to see a more streamlined, targeted approach than the 209-page Senate bill. Unless we set priorities, the legislation won’t have any impact. And the Senate package could not possibly get through the House.

So while I can’t say I’m optimistic that we’ll get authorizing legislation enacted this year, all the pieces we need to do so are on the board, and we could negotiate a good bill if we were given the green light to do so. And regardless of the authorizing legislation, Congress is likely to increase spending on research significantly this year.

So my colleagues who will be around for the 110th Congress in January, will be in a good position to start right in again on STEM issues when Congress convenes. And now that the issue is on the front burner, it’s not going to go away.

Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R, NY-24th) is the Chair of the House Science Committee. He is currently serving in his 12th term. Congressman Boehlert will be retiring at the close of the 109th Congress.

Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY, 24th)

Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY, 24th)