The real action on the federal budget usually doesn't get going each year until the spring, when Congressional appropriations committees start drafting their bills and putting their own stamp on the budget blueprint that the president lays out on the first Monday in February. But the early hearings that House and Senate committees stage in the weeks after the White House releases its budget plan usually give a pretty good sense of Congressional thinking. Wednesday's session before the House Committee on Science and Technology left little doubt that lawmakers aren't really pleased with the Bush administration's 2008 approach to science.
“As the father of a five year old daughter, I am deeply concerned that our children will be the first generation of Americans not to inherit a better standard of living than their parents,” Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the committee's chairman, said in his opening statement. He asserted that the proposed budget would cause federal research and development spending to dip to below 1 percent of all federal spending.
The only good sign Gordon could find was overall spending for the National Science Foundation -- but even that came with a big caveat.“NSF is up and that’s good, but the funding for education is down,” he said. “Not only does the American Competitiveness [Initiative] not contain anything for teacher training, it only focuses on K-8 math curriculum at the Department of Education.” In FY 2006, NSF appropriated $165.7 million for K-12 programs. The fiscal 2007 request was $149.8 million, and the 2008 request is $150.4 million.
On hand to defend the administration's 2008 budget plan for science was John H. Marburger, the president's science adviser. Without noting any statistics or specific funding, Marburger responded that the budget adequately addresses concerns about science education. This brought a sharp response from Gordon. “I see that you’ve attended the school of rope-a-dope,” he said, adding that many science teachers lack degrees in scientific fields and do not have certificates in science teaching. “You have not addressed this,” he said.
The cut to NSF science education theme was picked up by other lawmakers throughout the hearing. “I’m concerned about the funding for [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] ed,” said Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who has an advanced degree in engineering.
Concerns over the NSF’s math and science program has a bipartisan history that goes back many years. The Bush administration has been accused of raiding the NSF's education coffers to prop up funding for “No Child Left Behind.” Even so, experts say the cuts at NSF for science education have not been matched by similar increases at the Education Department.
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) echoed those concerns, stating that he was worried that money for science education was migrating from the NSF to the Department of Education. He said that he had even brought up the problem with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “As I’ve told her, ‘Why take it away from the NSF?’ ” He then said to Marburger, “This is a major issue. I hope you will join us in supporting NSF.”
Marburger responded that the president’s budget for science education is sound and that the NSF is well funded. (Overall funds for the NSF's education programs would grow under the 2008 budget plan to $938 million, up from $879 million in 2006.) Gordon challenged that view, repeating his assertion that NSF education programs aimed at elementary and secondary education are down 50 percent over the last four years.
On that note, he hit his gavel and ended the meeting.