NSF Director Neal Lane on the Effects of the Government Shutdown


The following are remarks by Neal Lane, PhD, Director, National Science Foundation (NSF), at the American Astronomical Society Meeting, January, 15, 1996. His address was entitled, 'Thin Ice Over Deep Water: Science and Technology in a 7-Year Downsizing.'

'Although I would prefer to talk with you, today, in a lighthearted and confident manner, I have come, in fact, with some serious concerns about science, our national judgment, and America's future. The government shutdown was senseless, wasteful, and many would say irresponsible governance; hence, my heavy heart and disgruntled spirit.

'At NSF, we returned from the shutdown to the sight of over 20 large mailroom carts crammed one against the other, brimming over with 4 weeks of proposals and correspondence. The last report I had showed over 2,000 proposals in the queue (on the average, we receive and log in about 240 proposals per day). On a single day last week, I know we received over 900 proposals. So, I expect that the queue is up to 3,000 by now...

'Many continuing grants ran out of funds, and there are likely to be funding gaps for some renewals and substantial delays in funding new awards. A large number of panels, site visits and other reviews, and a meeting of the National Science Board had to be canceled or postponed. Some new programs may be delayed by 6 months to a year or canceled. And there are many other serious and urgent problems.

'...This year cannot be business as usual. The time period we have lost is one that is critical to the smooth functioning of the proposal review and award process. There is simply no way to avoid some negative impact of a month's shutdown. We will do everything we can to limit the impact, but we will not lower the review standards. We will be asking for your patience and understanding as our program officers attempt to get us back in...business.

'...We are now challenged to more clearly articulate the benefits of federally funded research and education to a nation that is largely uninformed about science and increasingly skeptical of federal funding of all sorts. Now it is important that scientists move beyond their intuitive understanding of the importance of their work and begin to fold in anecdotal evidence from the past with the results of careful assessments--both existing and still to be done--of the tangible societal benefits of scientific research and education.

'Recently we have had strong validation of both our intuition and data. The President's Council of Economic Advisors issued a report in October entitled 'Supporting Research and Development to Promote Economic Growth.' The economy is not the only benefit to be derived from R&D, but it is an important one. The report stresses that every federal dollar spent on R&D adds much more to the economy than simply a dollar of R&D.

'The federal investment in nondefense R&D is projected by the AAAS to decrease by approximately 33% in real terms by 2002, and the cuts in education are larger. In essence, this nation is getting ready to run an experiment it has never done before--to see if we can reduce the federal investment in R&D by 1/3 and still be a world leader in the 21st century. Nobody knows the outcome. But it seems pretty high risk...

'Mother Nature may have shut down Washington with a pair of blizzards, but before that the entire nation suffered something of a whiteout by the shutdown of the federal government on two occasions for a total of 4 weeks. In this last go-around, several agencies or programs that are politically visible and popular were pulled out of the usual appropriations bills by the Congress and given targeted appropriations, i.e., long-term C.R.s, through the end of the fiscal year. NSF was not one of them; nor was NASA--we are in business only through January 26...

'My message to you today is that if you don't take it as one of your professional responsibilities to inform your fellow citizens about the importance of the science and technology enterprise, then that public support, critical to sustaining it, isn't going to be there. Who knows more about science, its complex relationship with technology, the linkage between research and education, the often unexpected benefits to society, than you? Who understands better than anyone the price our nation will pay if we fall behind in science and technology in the effort to downsize government? Is it self-serving to advocate support for science? Perhaps. But if the self is the American people and the position of leadership of the U.S. in all fields of science and technology in the 21st century, then I wouldn't worry too much about appearing self-serving.

One thing that has been striking during this year of budget battles and, most recently, the shutdown, is the perceived stony silence of the science and technology community--the universities, where most of the fundamental research is done, and with a few exceptions, business and industry, which depend on the knowledge and technologies research provides. And I can assure you that this perceived lack of concern has not gone unnoticed in Washington.

'This is not the time to plead for biology vs. chemistry or astronomy vs. engineering, or even basic vs. applied research or technology. It's a time to speak out about the importance of the federal investment in science and technology, in research and education, in universities, in national laboratories and other institutions, and in the partnerships that have been formed with industry and other sectors that use the knowledge and technologies for the public good...'




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