In recent years, the geoscience community has repeatedly faced the challenge of convincing Congress to restore funding for programs cut in the president's budget request. And we face it again this year with cuts to geology and hydrology programs in the U.S. Geological Survey, and fossil energy research in the Department of Energy, among others.
But we face a different challenge now with EarthScope, a major initiative within the National Science Foundation (NSF). This project is part of the president's request for NSF's Major Research Equipment (MRE) account. Typically used to fund capital-intensive physics and astronomy facilities over several years, the MRE account is separate from the accounts that fund the research directorates.
EarthScope would take advantage of new technology and data management capabilities to develop a comprehensive understanding of the North American continent through large seismic arrays, high-precision global positioning system receivers, directional drilling through an active fault and an interferometric radar satellite. EarthScope is the first earth-science MRE project ever requested, but it is going to require significant effort to make it the first earth-science MRE project funded.
Unfortunately, the MRE account has become increasingly subjected to congressionally added projects in recent years. Before EarthScope can make it into NSF's final appropriation, it must first pass through a gauntlet of lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, these end-run approaches are fast replacing the carefully constructed NSF peer-review system as the mechanism for getting MRE projects funded.
The geoscience community needs to rally around EarthScope and, in the process, encourage the House and Senate appropriations committees to respect the scientific priorities for funding projects that emerge from the MRE process. Otherwise, NSF may be headed down the road of other agencies, where earmarking pet projects of home-state universities is common practice.
EarthScope has all the right moves: it has been approved by the National Science Board (NSB), made it through the internal NSF process and through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) review, received strong endorsement from a National Research Council report (see page 19) and has statements of support from geoscience societies.
The NSB, which serves as NSF's policy-setting board of directors, is the principal gatekeeper for the MRE account and must approve projects before they can be considered for inclusion in the budget. EarthScope won approval in 1999 and was included in the president's request for fiscal year 2001. But that request, the last of the Clinton administration, sought a whopping 21 percent boost for NSF. The final appropriation included a 15 percent increase for NSF, but did not include EarthScope. As an accompanying report made clear, the failure to fund the project was done "without prejudice." There simply was not enough money.
While budgetary constraints played an important role, EarthScope was not just taken out. Another project was put in: the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER), an MRE project that Congress had funded the previous year after its supporters waged a highly effective campaign to gain support on Capitol Hill. NSF perceived this effort as an end-run around the foundation's established procedures and thus did not include the project in the fiscal year 2001 budget.
For Congress, however, NSF's perspective was nonsense. HIAPER had gone through NSB approval, just as had EarthScope: if it was pork, then it was kosher pork. And the one rule that the House and Senate appropriations committees follow for the MRE account is that once they commit to funding a project, they will follow through with support until that project's completion, which can take three to five years. That's why getting the initial slug of funding is crucial. EarthScope is expected to cost $185 million over five years, but it is the first $35 million increment that will make all the difference.
Don't play it again, Sam
In his fiscal year 2002 budget, President Bush did not request any new starts in the MRE account. Congress inserted funds for HIAPER and an NSB-approved neutrino detector facility in Antarctica known as IceCube.
Now fiscal year 2003 is set up to play like a reprise of fiscal year 2001. EarthScope is in the request along with the National Ecological Observing Network (NEON), which experienced a fate similar to EarthScope's in fiscal year 2001. HIAPER — now awaiting its final installment with the airframe already built — and IceCube are not. But there are several important differences this time around. Two are in EarthScope's favor. The president's request low-balled NSF with only a 5 percent increase. The House budget resolution, passed in early March, provides room for a 9 percent increase for NSF, which should be room enough to fund both the NSF-requested projects and the existing projects.
Another difference this year is that the NSB has established clear priorities among the competing MRE projects. In the past, the NSB has approved projects without establishing any kind of prioritization, opening the door for kosher pork. For fiscal year 2003, however, NSB has announced that its top three priorities are the three new projects in the president's request: EarthScope, NEON and the second phase of the Atacama Large-Millimeter Array telescope (ALMA II). The NSB thus has aligned its priorities with those of NSF Director Rita Colwell as reflected both in the budget request and in her testimony before the House Science Committee last fall and again this spring.
Some of the other changes are not so beneficial. When EarthScope supporters gave briefings to staff of the appropriations committees and the House Science Committee, they learned that the physicists had already come a-calling with the message that yet another NSB-approved but as yet unfunded project, known by the acronym RSVP, was more deserving and should be moved ahead of EarthScope and the others. And the free-for-all is not just limited to NSB-approved projects. Another potential hurdle involves the Homestake mine, which South Dakota's senators are seeking to turn into a (what else) physics laboratory, using its incredible depth to provide shielding for a neutrino collector. In last year's defense appropriations bill, the senators successfully transferred liability to the federal government as part of a deal to keep the company from shutting down the pumps that are keeping the now shuttered mine from filling up with water. This year, they are expected to seek a funding home within NSF. Although the foundation is standing firm on the need for NSB review, the MRE account could become the target for Homestake funding -- further shrinking the slice of the pie available for EarthScope.
What If We Don't Succeed?
Nobody should go into a fight expecting to lose, but considering the possibility should provide additional motivation not to let it happen. For starters, if EarthScope does not make it through this time, it is not likely to get another shot. In a news article in Science last July on the MRE account, writer Jeffrey Mervis noted that EarthScope supporters had sought to go through the proper process rather than seek a congressional bypass. He quotes an unnamed NSF official as saying: "They agreed to play by the rules, and so far they have lost out."
The implication here is that other groups with MRE projects are going to school on the fate of EarthScope and NEON. If following the rules means not getting funded, then these groups will be lining up to hire the best lobbyist they can find. That's how major science projects will advance. With a number of NSB-approved projects already in queue, it seems unlikely that EarthScope will get another chance in fiscal year 2004. Rightly or wrongly, the perception will be that newer science and newer opportunities must be seized. The moment will be lost.
Should EarthScope fail, the implications for the earth science community are as follows. First: we lose funding from an account that competes against other disciplines, not against other earth science programs. Second: there is an understanding at NSF that if EarthScope goes through, the Earth Sciences Division (EAR) would see future boosts to cover the cost of individual investigator-driven investigations that take advantage of the EarthScope networks. No MRE project, no additional funding for EAR.
Third: If EarthScope is not funded in the MRE account, it will not simply disappear beneath the waves. A scaled-down version of EarthScope could still come to pass with the money taken out of existing EAR programs. Cannibalizing earth science research is not a good outcome. Although the president's request appears to provide a whopping 21 percent increase for the division, all but an inflationary increase is from program transfers rather than increases for core programs. There is not a lot of spare change.
Even those geoscientists who do not stand to benefit from this project
have a strong incentive to push for its inclusion in the MRE account. It
is not hyperbole to state that the overall health of solid-earth research
funding depends on its success. If Congress funds EarthScope in FY 2003,
the earth sciences will have demonstrated that they are capable of producing
large-scale research projects that can compete on an even playing field
with facility-rich disciplines such as physics. But if we don't, then we
can expect to play second fiddle for years to come.
For more information
on the president’s fiscal year 2003 budget request, visit American
Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. For more on Earthscope,
visit its Web site.