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House Spending Panel Takes a Whack at Two NSF Programs

Turns out the stimulus package may not be pure gravy for the National Science Foundation after all. On Tuesday the appropriations committee of the U.S. House of Representatives cut out the entire $100 million that the National Science Foundation had requested for its Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program next year, deciding that the $300 million in additional funding it received from the massive federal stimulus package approved in February should tide it over for another year.

The MRI program was seen as a good source of "shovel-ready" projects after NSF received $515 million in requests—five times the amount available—during the 2008 competition. NSF is planning two rounds of funding this year: one to tap the stimulus funding and one funded by the $100 million from NSF's regular 2009 appropriations. But a third round planned for early 2010 is now in limbo.

Also up in the air is NSF's plan to ramp up its Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. The 15-year-old program, which helps community colleges provide industry with a skilled work force, is one of the Obama Administration's education priorities, and NSF had requested a 24% boost, to $62 million, on the way to $100 million by 2013. Instead, the House spending panel cut the request by 57%, to $22 million, noting that the reduction was made "to support higher priority programs" within NSF.

That decision doesn't sit well with one senior panel member, Representative David Price (D–NC). Price, who may be the program's biggest supporter in Congress, argued during the committee markup that ATE "is the only program that engages with America’s community colleges." He also noted that it was created "to rectify a serious deficiency whereby NSF did nothing at the level of advanced technical education."

"This is only the start of a long process," says Phil Feagan, the legislator's press secretary. "Mr. Price believes that funding can be restored as the appropriations process moves forward to the Senate and to conference."