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A $3 Billion Bonanza for NSF?

Officials at the National Science Foundation are still pinching themselves over the agency's high profile in the $825 billion package of proposed tax cuts and new spending that Democrats introduced in the House of Representatives yesterday. The basic research agency is slated to get a $3 billion temporary bump up--half its current $6 billion budget--to spend in the next 20 months on research, training, instrumentation, and infrastructure projects. If the money materializes, the challenge for NSF officials will be to avoid a boom-and-bust cycle like the one being endured by its much larger sister agency, the National Institutes of Health.

The size of NSF's increase makes it the biggest winner, on a percentage basis, of any research agency mentioned in the economic recovery plan. The money, if it survives scrutiny by both houses of Congress, would push NSF far beyond even the lofty spending levels authorized under the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which projected a 7-year doubling of NSF's budget. "It's an incredibly positive message from [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Appropriations Committee Chair David] Obey about the value of basic science in contributing to economic recovery. It's unbelievable," says Anthony Gibson of NSF's congressional affairs office.

While most of the stimulus package targets specific programs at various agencies, Democratic leaders gave NSF officials a free hand in deciding how to spend most of the money. The biggest single chunk, $2 billion, would go to NSF's six research directorates for ongoing and new activities. By comparison, its education directorate would receive an additional $100 million with short strings attached: $60 million to expand the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program to attract undergraduates into science and math teaching, and $40 million under the Math and Science Partnership program for university-based school reform efforts.

The rest of the money, some $900 million, is divided among three infrastructure programs that are heavily oversubscribed. The $90 million major research instrumentation program could get an additional $300 million, while $200 million would be used to revive a program that ran for a few years in the 1990s to renovate academic facilities. The final $400 million would help NSF get started on four large projects that have been approved but are not yet under construction. They are the Ocean Observatories Initiative, the National Ecological Observatory Network, the Alaska Regional Research Vessel, and the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope.