American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Report on National Science Board Meeting (8-13-98)

The National Science Board (NSB) held an open session at the National Sciene Foundation (NSF) Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia on August 13, 1998. The agenda included swearing in new  NSF Director Rita Colwell, reports by the Chairman and Director, an environmental report presentation, future plans for the Science and Engineering Indicators, a presentation on international issues, strategies for human resource development, discussion on the NSB strategic plan, and committee reports.

In Colwell's first report to the NSB as NSF Director, she gave an update on the Congressional appropriation season. She was pleased that the first NSF authorization bill was passed since 1988 as requested by the President. She expressed concern, however, at the increasing use of earmarks, (money stipulated in an appropriations bill for a specific project). Colwell said that earmarks are egregious, arguing that they have the potential to compromise the Foundation's reputation and credibility.

Dr. Peter Raven, member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), gave a talk entitled "Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America's Living Capital." He spoke of biodiversity as being one of the three main tenents of PCAST, along with energy and education. Raven feels that there is a "scandalous or stupid lack of attention" to the systems that sustain us. Citing current extinction rates as 100 to 1000 times more rapid than the background rate since the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary, he believes that we are on a path to lose the assets upon which our civilization is based. Raven emphasized that when he refers to biodiversity as an asset, he means that it is more than just an aesthetic asset; it is an economic one as well. He noted that many are calling the 21st century the "Biological Age" with a continued forging towards genetics as a main driver of budding technology. The extinction of species then results in a loss of tools from which the biological industry can draw.

He gave six investment recommendations for the National Science Foundation:
1. increase science knowledge and service to society
2. discover and document species, including bacteria
3. research and monitor ecosystems
4. study environment's relation with economics
5. promote the National Biological Information Infrastructure, a proposed biological database
6. enhance citizen environmental education

After reminding us of last year's expedition to Mars, he created an analogy to support his funding prerogatives. Picture living on Mars by utilizing mechanical systems that sustain life. Next, imagine a "Pathfinder"-like mission landing on Earth and discovering natural systems that performed the same functions that were being engineered. "Wouldn't we want to invest heavily into how those systems worked?", he concluded.

Pierre Perrolle, Director of the Division of International Programs, spoke of the variety of ways NSF works globally. The international dimension of NSF's mission seeks to advance science and engineering through international activities and ensure that American scientists and engineers have international experience. The driving forces behind international activities come from three main sources. Segments of the research community work in overseas field areas and foreign facilities. NSF strategic objectives strive to establish working relationships with international scientists and to share large facility costs (e.g. Large Hadron Collider at CERN). Also, external initiatives from the White House, Congress, and other countries lead to a domestic agency with an international stake. One graph from Perrolle's presentation showed the funding directed to each NSF directorate for international activities. A few comments were overheard in the audience about the Geoscience international expenditure which is more than $200 million, over four times greater than any other NSF directorate. This proportional difference is likely attributed to the Ocean Drilling Program being funded under the Geoscience Directorate.

Dr. Wanda Ward, assistant to the deputy director for human resource development, and  Lawrence Rudolph, general counsel, spoke of strategies for human resource development. This is a topic which the Administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy holds as a big priority. Rudolph mostly spoke of legal wranglings from recent affirmative action ruling. He mentioned the 1978 landmark affirmative action case (Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke), the 1995 Hopwood reverse discrimination case in Texas (a 1996 decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled the University of Texas' affirmative action policies unconstitutional), a recent ruling in Massachusetts (a Federal court supported race-based school entrance exams in a case that is currently under appeal to the 1st Circuit Court), and California's Proposition 209 (a state-wide referendum to discontinue affirmative action policies). Because the Texas and Massachusetts cases were both heard in circuit courts and had opposing rulings, the counselor said that it may be a topic for the Supreme Court to address. They are looking for innovative strategies to use the $110 million budgeted for EHR to leverage other funds within NSF to promote their mission.

Committee reports
As the head of the Executive committee, Colwell spoke first of the budget. The Chair of the EHR committee talked about the hearings held on informal education, urban K-12, the questioning of GRE and SAT validity, the positive and negative roles of international students, and education research on how new technology affects learning. The 50th Anniversary Committee is looking to celebrate the November 2, 1949 date on which President Truman established the NSF. The committee is planning on having an essay competition to commemorate the event. Speaking for the Environment Committee, Dr. Jane Lubchencho, Professor of Zoology at Oregon State University, conveyed the need to define scope. There was no mention of the formerly proposed National Institute for the Environment. Dr. Warren Washington, Head of the Climate Change Research Section at the National Center for Atmosphere Research, represented the Task Force on Polar Issues. He announced support and approval for aircraft that supports Antarctic research. He also mentioned legislation in the Senate concerning Arctic Programs.

The next meeting of the National Science Board is scheduled for October 7, 1998 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Source: National Science Board open session meeting

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

Contributed by Joy Roth, AGI Government Affairs intern.

Posted: August 17, 1998

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