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Making an Impact on the Hill
The Honorable Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.)

Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” In the late 1990s, such a committed group of scientists and other stakeholders recognized that groundbreaking research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was being hindered by a lack of funding. So they organized themselves and began lobbying Congress for significant and sustained increases in the agency’s budget.

Their commitment and persistence paid off. By 1998, NIH was on the path to having its budget doubled, and five years later that process was completed. The undertaking was arguably the most successful lobbying effort ever on behalf of scientific research, increasing the budget at NIH from an already enviable $13.6 billion in 1998 to a massive $27.2 billion in 2003.

As chairman of the House Science Committee, I fully understand the importance of the federal investment in scientific research, including the biomedical research that is conducted at NIH, and I strongly supported the efforts to increase the agency’s budget.

But I also recognize that a full return on our increased investment in biomedical research requires us to fully fund the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering that often provide the foundation for biomedical work. That means providing adequate funding for the lead physical sciences agencies, including the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Defense, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Of those agencies, though, NSF has become the primary focus of current efforts to augment the federal science budget because it supports a broad range of basic research; indeed, the agency provides almost 25 percent of all federal support for basic university research.

At $5.58 billion in the current fiscal year (FY) 2004, the NSF budget is significantly smaller than that of NIH — and was so even before the doubling of the latter — yet the agency’s contributions to the nation in terms of scientific research and advancement are of no less value. NSF has one of the best records of all federal agencies for providing taxpayers an excellent return on their investment. But its budget has historically been inadequate, a fact that was only highlighted by the dramatic increase in the NIH budget.

That is why I led the effort in 2001 and 2002 to authorize the doubling of the budget of NSF. The road wasn’t always easy, but I and other key players in both the House and Senate were able to push that bill through Congress, and it was signed into law by President Bush in December 2002.

Unfortunately, the general constraints on federal spending have limited the ability of appropriators to follow through on the guidance in the NSF authorization legislation. At a time of increased spending on defense and homeland security, the prospects for a significant increase in the NSF budget are dim. The agency’s budget is in a particularly tough spot because it is in an appropriations bill that forces the agency to compete against veterans' benefits, housing programs and NASA.

With total FY 2005 non-defense discretionary spending essentially unchanged from FY 2004, it will be impossible to boost one agency's budget without the increase coming at the expense of another's. And scientists operate at somewhat of a disadvantage: It is much easier to put a human face on the importance of veterans' programs than on, say, a geodetic observatory examining Earth's crust.

That is why it is vital that the scientific community effectively organize itself and open the channels of communication with Congress. The scientific community has become more visible over the years, but much work remains to be done.

The NIH legislative victory was the product of steadfast commitment and persistence. And the scientists and experts who best understood the importance of NIH's research communicated its value to those who set federal policy and write the checks. Their method for success should serve as a model for efforts to ensure maximum funding for NSF. Those here in Congress who are setting policy and funding levels need to hear about the remarkable, groundbreaking research being conducted under the auspices of the agency. They need to hear about the immense benefit to society of NSF's endeavors. They need to hear from the scientific community.

I applaud the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), of which the American Geological Institute is an active and influential member, for hosting an annual exhibition here in the House of Representatives. Held on June 22 this year, the event provides an open forum for scientists and researchers to discuss with members of Congress the advancements they are making because of federal investments in science.

The CNSF exhibition and other efforts to educate congressional representatives and get them excited about scientific advancements are crucial to ensuring that NSF receives its fair share of federal spending. And I strongly urge more such efforts.

It is not necessary to reach all 535 members of Congress, although the more, the better. But it is critical to develop well-placed champions for the cause. Efforts like the CNSF exhibition help both to fortify your champions and to increase the number of interested policy-makers.

Regular communication with key decision-makers, both in their home districts and through events like the CNSF exhibition, is what is needed to find a sympathetic ear, educate and excite the listener, and turn that person into a champion. Only then do legislative success stories like the doubling of the NIH budget become reality.

Boehlert is chairman of the House Science Committee and the Republican representative for New York's 24th district.

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