Pictures of Pluto. Congress wants the real thing--not just an artist's conception of the distant planet (and its moon Charon, foreground).

House Panel Boosts NSF, NASA Budgets

They can't take it to the bank yet, but two U.S. research agencies this week received good news about their budgets from an important congressional spending panel.

On 9 October the House Appropriations Committee voted a $614 million increase in the 2003 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF), a 13% jump nearly in line with the community's hope for a 5-year doubling of the $5 billion basic research agency. At the same time, the panel approved a $400 million boost for NASA that includes a controversial mission to Pluto. This week's vote brings the House even with the Senate, where appropriators approved a similar measure in July (ScienceNOW, 25 July and 26 July). Neither House nor Senate spending bill has reached the floor, however, and it's not clear when Congress will complete action on this and several other bills to fund the government for the fiscal year that began on 1 October.

"It's a historic time for NSF," says Director Rita Colwell about the bill, which tops the Senate's version by $70 million and is $394 million more than what the Bush Administration has requested. Both NSF's research and its major facilities accounts would get 15% hikes, with appropriators adding $26 million to finish a high-altitude environmental research plane and $25 million for a neutrino experiment behind the South Pole. Education programs would get only the requested 4% rise, although the panel took $40 million from the $200 million sought for math and science education partnerships and distributed it among several smaller programs.

At the same time Congress is poised to begin a doubling journey, legislators want an outside group of management experts to delve into how NSF does its business. "We're not criticizing them, but we want to be sure they can handle the growth," says one congressional aide about a proposed study by the National Academy of Public Administration. Legislators are wondering if NSF has gorged itself in recent years on top-down cross-disciplinary initiatives in information technology, nanotechnology, and biocomplexity while starving individual fields, in particular physics, chemistry, and astronomy. They are also concerned about the effect of NSF's extensive use of scientists who are on loan for a few years from somewhere else, usually a university.

Within the NASA portion of the $91 billion budget bill, appropriators brushed aside objections by the Bush Administration to the $488 million mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt and agreed with an earlier Senate plan to continue funding the effort. The mission is scheduled for a 2006 launch. The House panel also provides a $20 million boost to NASA's Mars exploration program, to cover rising costs in planned robotic and orbiter missions. At the same time, lawmakers decided that equipment shortages on the international space station preclude a proposed $11 million biology project called Generations. And they asked NASA to consider extending the life of the Hubble Space Telescope beyond 2010 to avoid a possible viewing gap caused by delays in launching the newly named James Webb Space Telescope.

Related sites