NSF Hopes for Presidential Pat on the Back

One of the nation's leading science bureaucrats will be a guest of honor tonight at President Clinton's State of the Union address to Congress. The White House has invited National Science Foundation (NSF) director Rita Colwell to accompany First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to the annual ceremony--heightening speculation that Clinton will use the speech to highlight a new computer research initiative included in his upcoming 2000 budget proposal.

In recent years, presidents have introduced special guests during the nationally televised address to add a human touch to what is often a tedious and long-winded affair. Last year, for instance, Clinton recognized an ex-welfare recipient and a veteran of the Bosnian peacekeeping mission to promote the job training and international security initiatives on his annual budget wish list. The cameras also showed a beaming Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as Clinton announced his plan to ask for the largest funding increase in the history of the biomedical research agency. In October, lawmakers approved more funds for NIH--a record $2 billion increase.

This year, Colwell's presence in the First Lady's select group of 10 guests suggests that it is NSF's turn to bask in the spotlight. Budget watchers expect Clinton to ask Congress to give NSF the largest percentage increase of any basic research agency--some 6%, or roughly $200 million, to nearly $3.9 billion. A good portion of that increase is expected to go to a computer research initiative, designed to boost the development of new software, hardware, and communication networks. The initiative--which is currently nameless but reportedly has the backing of Vice President Al Gore--will be coordinated by NSF and involve at least three other agencies.

Congressional aides say there is no guarantee that the president will mention Colwell, who is NSF's first woman director, by name. After all, notes one, "Rita doesn't quite have the name recognition of Sammy Sosa," the home run-belting baseball star who will be honored for his efforts to help survivors of Hurricane Mitch in his native Dominican Republic.