SPECIAL UPDATE: OMB Plans Transfer of Research Programs to NSF

(Posted 12-21-01)

This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies.

IN A NUTSHELL: According to press reports, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) plans to use the upcoming fiscal year (FY) 2003 budget request to transfer research programs and facilities at EPA, NOAA, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Geological Survey to the National Science Foundation (NSF). In a recent speech, OMB Director Mitchell Daniels praised NSF as a model agency. Although the transfers are being presented as a reward for NSF, critics have questioned the appropriateness of the transfer given the targeted, applied nature of many of these programs and the effect that the transfer would have on the programs themselves. The administration's budget request will be released on February 4th, beginning the congressional appropriations cycle. Preliminary indications suggest that Congress may not support the transfers.


With Congress finally wrapping up work on the last of the fiscal year (FY) 2002 appropriations bills, attention will soon shift to the president's FY 2003 budget request, due out on February 4th. The development of that budget has been underway for many months within the administration in a process orchestrated by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The release of the request marks the beginning of the congressional appropriations process, the second half of the annual budget cycle. It is the congressional process that gets all the attention for the simple reason that Congress does much of its budgetary work in the public eye with open hearings and widely released bill versions full of specific numbers.

In contrast, the development of the administrationís request -- a tortuous process with negotiations between agencies, departments, OMB, and other White House offices -- is confidential until the February release. Federal agencies begin the process by providing OMB with a budget draft based on OMB-set guidelines.  OMB then "passes back" a revised budget at which point agencies have an opportunity to make an appeal before OMB gives them their final pass back. For FY 2003, the final pass back is taking place this week, and the budget request is not expected to change much between now and its release.

The confidentiality of the OMB process is not airtight, and word tends to leak out when specific agencies or programs are threatened. This year, the veil of secrecy surrounding the budget request has been drawn back by a series of recent reports in Science, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, and The New York Times describing planned transfers of science programs from four separate federal agencies to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Building NSF at Expense of Other Agencies
President George W. Bush and OMB Director Mitchell Daniels have made it perfectly clear that the FY 2003 budget will provide healthy boosts to activities related to national security and the war against terrorism at the expense of other federal programs.  It has been less clear what that will mean for science agency budgets. A very positive sign for NSF came last month when Daniels gave a highly laudatory speech at the National Press Club, citing the foundation as an excellent federal program and noting that NSF allocated more than 95 percent of its funding "on a competitive basis directly to researchers pursuing the frontiers of science" with "a very low overhead cost."

The journal Science reports that OMB is turning words into action by providing a 4 to 5 percent increase for NSF ($190 to $240 million above FY 2002's $4.8 billion level) in the FY 2003 request. The bulk of that increase, however, would not be new money but rather transfers of programs from other agencies: EPA's Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant and fellowship program ($19 million), NOAA's Sea Grant program ($57 million), the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) national water research program ($10 million), and the base funding for three Smithsonian Institution research facilities ($36 million). According to the New York Times, recently confirmed White House Science Advisor John Marburger supports the transfers. NSF officials, citing the confidentiality of the budget process, are not making any comments.

Most of the press attention has focused on the Smithsonian research centers: the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland; and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. The OMB proposal would transfer the centers' operating budgets -- which pay for facilities, maintenance, and salaries -- to NSF for distribution as grants. To help with the transition, the transferred funds initially would be limited to proposals from researchers at these centers, but in future years would be part of NSF's general pool. Critics point out that scientists at the centers already compete for external grants from NASA, NSF and other agencies to fund their actual research. They would be hard-pressed to obtain enough additional grants to provide the overhead necessary to support the facilities, forcing the centers to close. Critics also question whether the long-term nature of the research at these centers can be sustained if they must rely entirely on two-year and three-year grants.

Although the three centers primarily focus on biological and astronomical research, all have earth science programs and employ a number of geoscientists.  At SERC, one major focus is investigating the factors controlling the discharge of water, sediments, and nutrients from watersheds.  For the past quarter century, the program has continuously monitored several watersheds of the Rhode River, which is a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  SERC has also monitored other watersheds and streams in the Chesapeake area for many years, providing insights into how the region responds to variable weather and land cover.  Another long-term data collection project at SERC focuses on temporal and spatial variations of ultra-violet radiation at the Earth's surface, providing valuable data that can be used to assess the depletion of stratospheric ozone. STRI supports paleontological and palynologic research focused on reconstructing paleoclimates and migration pathways. The center takes advantage of the strategic location of the isthmus of Panama, which plays a crucial role in global ocean circulation and is a crossroads between North and South America. The astrophysics center has a number of geoscientists on staff working on meteorites and the geologic evolution of the terrestrial planets.

According to an OMB official quoted in the New York Times, the reason for the transfer is simple: "NSF doesn't do museums and possibly the Smithsonian ought not to be dabbling in random research." Smithsonian supporters counter this argument, noting that scientific research has always been an important part of the Smithsonian's mission, and indeed the institution's original charter calls for both the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." Moreover, supporters argue, the research conducted at these centers informs the content of exhibits enjoyed by millions of visitors at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History. More on the centers at http://www.si.edu/portal/t1-research.htm.

In the case of both Sea Grant and STAR, the transfers involve programs that are dominantly external in nature, providing fellowships and grants to universities. In that respect, they are functions consistent with the NSF mode of operation. Indeed the Sea Grant program was formerly housed in NSF until Congress transferred it to NOAA in 1991. The purpose of Sea Grant is to encourage "the wise stewardship of our marine resources through research, education, outreach and technology transfer." More at http://www.nsgo.seagrant.org/.

Although EPA's STAR funds university-based research, the program is considerably more targeted than one finds at NSF, reflecting the program's purpose of providing EPA with research results that address the agency's regulatory decisionmaking needs. According to the EPA website, research topics "are prepared in cooperation with other parts of the Agency and concentrate on areas of special significance to the EPA." Current topics include: "the health effects of particulate matter, drinking water, water quality, global change, ecosystem assessment and restoration, human health risk assessment, endocrine disrupting chemicals, pollution prevention and new technologies, childrenís health, and socio-economic research." More at http://es.epa.gov/ncer/ncqwelc.html.

In contrast to the external nature of both Sea Grant and STAR, the USGS National (Water) Research Program conducts in-house "basic and problem oriented hydrologic research in support of the mission of the U.S. Geological Survey.... Knowledge gained and methodologies developed in this program apply to all of the hydrologic investigations of the USGS, to the water-oriented investigations and operations of other agencies, and to the general scientific community. Through the years, many of the Geological Survey's major research and resource assessment initiatives related to existing and emerging national water-resources problems had their origins" in this long-term research program. More on the program at http://water.usgs.gov/nrp/.

Congress Likely to Reject Transfers
In an effort to dissuade OMB, the American Institute of Biological Sciences is collecting signatures for a joint letter opposing the transfers, and similar letters have already been sent by the American Association of Museums and the Maryland congressional delegation. According to the Washington Post, OMB has already rejected the Smithsonian's final appeal, meaning that the transfers will appear in the president's request. But the request is just the start of the congressional process, and at the present time it appears highly unlikely that Congress will support the transfers.

Both the Smithsonian and USGS are funded as part of the Interior and Related Agencies appropriations bill, whereas NSF (along with EPA) is funded within the VA, HUD & Independent Agencies bill. In general, the subcommittees handling the individual appropriations bills do not like to turn over programs (and hence money) under their jurisdiction to other subcommittees. In the case of the Smithsonian centers, congressional opposition is also likely given that the proposed transfer would appear to violate the spirit if not the letter of language in the most recent Interior appropriations bill blocking an earlier plan by Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small to reorganize the institution's science programs and eliminate several other centers. The bill prohibited closure of those facilities until a congressionally mandated "blue-ribbon science commission" had conducted a review of the Smithsonian's science programs. The bill stated that "...the process for making significant research changes must be thoroughly vetted within the research community and through the budget process." The science commission has met twice but is not expected to release a report until later this year. Members of the commission are protesting OMB's unilateral decision. Commission Chairman Jeremy A. Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told the Washington Post: "This is not cost-cutting. It is based on a lack of understanding."

Appropriations staff have also expressed opposition to the transfer of the USGS water research program, noting the mission incompatibility of the highly targeted, mission-supporting USGS research with the fundamental research supported by NSF. It is less clear how Congress would react to the Sea Grant transfer, which would also cross appropriations bills since NOAA is funded within the Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary bill. As noted above, it was Congress that transferred Sea Grant from NSF to NOAA in 1991. From a logistical standpoint, the EPA STAR program would be the easiest to transfer since both NSF and EPA are funded by the same bill. But as noted above, the STAR's purpose is to fund applied research that supports EPA's mission. As with the USGS, Congress may find the targeted nature of STAR research to be incompatible with NSF's mandate.

Special update prepared by Margaret A. Baker and David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs Program

Sources: Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Science, and the Washington Post.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted December 21, 2001

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