A good week for science education

June 20, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Adrian Cho, Jocelyn Kaiser, Eli Kintisch, Andrew Lawler, Jeffrey Mervis, and Erik Stokstad, ScienceNOW Daily News] — A third of a loaf is better than nothing. That’s the feeling among the U.S. research community after the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday to boost the current budgets of four key science agencies by $337 million. Although it was less than lobbyists had hoped, it’s probably more likely to happen than the sizeable budget increases for next year approved this week by several House and Senate spending panels with jurisdiction over a number of science agencies. Lobbyists fear those numbers, for the 2009 budget year that begins in October, could represent high-water marks in a process that likely will extend far beyond the November elections.

“This has been one of my better weeks,” quipped Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), applauding what he called the lawmakers’ “strong support for science.” The House vote came on a supplemental spending bill to finance the Iraq War through the end of the current 2008 fiscal year. The bill (HR 2642) contains $62.5 million each for NSF, NASA, and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science and $150 million more for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Meanwhile, the initial 2009 budget marks represent double-digit increases for NSF, NASA, and DOE science and match the Bush Administration’s request for those agencies. NIH is out of the gate with a 4% raise — $1.2 billion more than the level funding called for by the president.

Science advocates have urged Congress for months to restore as much as possible of $1 billion in research funds for the physical sciences that were stripped at the last minute from the 2008 budget passed in December (Science, 4 January, p. 18) after the Bush Administration had demanded $22 billion in cuts. Last month, the Senate granted some of their wishes in its version of the war supplemental, inserting $200 million each for NSF and NASA and $100 million for DOE. It also added $400 million for NIH.

House Democrats faced more pressure from members than their Senate counterparts to curb overall non-war spending, however. As a result, the House bill provides much lower bump-ups for each research agency. But because House leaders struck a compromise with the Bush Administration on several contentious features of the bill, including jobless benefits and helping veterans go back to school, their version is thought to stand a much better chance of becoming law. The Senate will take up the bill next week, and Democratic leaders hope that a final version will be ready for the president to sign before the 4th of July.

Prospects for the 2009 budget are much murkier. Anticipating vetoes by President Bush, the Democratic leadership is not expected to push for passage of any 2009 spending bills until after the November elections. Instead, agencies may be held to current spending levels for several months into the 2009 fiscal year.

Here are EDUCATION highlights of the 2008 supplemental and 2009 spending bills to date, by agency:

National Science Foundation

The House demonstrated its strong support for education by funneling two-thirds of the supplemental funding into NSF’s efforts to train more math and science teachers. In addition to doubling the current $10 million budget for the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program that serves undergraduates, the supplemental bill would give NSF $20 million to run a federal counterpart to the nonprofit Math for America program (MfA), which pays math-savvy college graduates to earn master’s degrees and become math teachers in the public schools and also improves the skills of existing math teachers. That program, begun in 2004 in New York City with a $25 million grant from billionaire financial manager and mathematician James Simons, is currently working with 185 teachers.

The NSF funds would be spent on a national competition to create programs modeled on the MfA approach. The 2007 America COMPETES Act calls for such private-public partnerships, notes Lee Umphrey, an MfA spokesperson: “We always considered New York City to be a pilot for something that would spread across the country.” Bement says that the teaching fellowships “would be a new program for us” but that he doesn’t consider it to be a congressional earmark. NSF had been “considering some options” for expanding the Noyce program to serve a broader population, he says, and “this [money] will help us move things along.”

The House and Senate marks for 2009 match the president’s request for a 13% increase in NSF’s overall $6 billion budget, to $6.85 billion. House appropriators shifted $48 million from NSF’s $4.8 billion research account into its $725 million education directorate for Noyce and other activities. They also would add $20 million to a $113 million program to help 25 states compete better for NSF funding. (The additional $22.5 million for research in the supplemental would fund an additional 76 grants this year across several disciplines, NSF officials estimate.)