A hearing by the committee hearing focused on legislation to reauthorize the NSF for fiscal year 2003, which begins Oct. 1. The House version of the authorization bill would set the agency on a course toward doubling its budget in five years. Lawmakers had previously doubled the budget for important research at the National Institutes of Health, but similar efforts are needed elsewhere, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee chairman.
"We should also work to grow support for research and development in theoretical mathematics and the physical sciences, not only because they are valuable in their own right, but also because they support advancements in the health sciences and other fields," Kennedy said. "We have an urgent need to begin today to interest young minds in math and science, and to recruit tomorrow's mathematicians and engineers."
Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., both agreed NSF's budget should be doubled. Their support bodes well for the agency, as both senators also sit on the committee that sets final budget levels.
"Not enough people understand the key role NSF plays in science education in this country," Bond said. He agreed with Kennedy that life sciences work will stagnate if the physical sciences are not supported.
One area where NSF affects science education is in multi-year research grants, which help graduate and post-doctoral students pay for their educations as they probe the edges of knowledge.
Mikulski pressed NSF Director Rita Colwell to explain how many grants are supported by current funding levels. Colwell replied the agency awards about 9,000 grants out of about 32,000 worthwhile requests. A study of awardees indicates doubling or tripling the awards, and having them cover five years instead of three, would allow researchers to take on more students, producing better research more quickly, Colwell said.
Other NSF programs focus on providing more educators in under-served areas, Colwell said, noting joint work with the Department of Education will result in additional awards later this summer.
NSF must engender greater emphasis on science among the entire U.S. school system, down to grade school, if the country is to maintain its technological leadership, said astronaut and former Sen. John Glenn.
"It's not that our kids are getting dumber, they're not going down in their IQ," Glenn told the committee. "Other nations are beginning to recognize what the goose was that laid the golden eggs for the United States, and they're emphasizing their math and science."
A scientific talent crisis already has hit the country, Glenn said. In the past five years, Congress twice has had to raise visa limits for technically proficient foreigners. Studies of the nation's educators do little to ease concerns, with the vast majority of middle school math and science teachers lacking degrees in the subjects they teach, he said.
Making this problem plain to the patchwork of thousands of school boards across the country is difficult, Glenn said, while countries with national school systems have little trouble shifting curriculum on the fly.
The nation's scientific community can provide NSF some assistance in making science education more compelling, said Dr. Keith Verner, chief of developmental pediatrics and learning at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. Direct collaborations between active researchers and teachers can spark students' interest, he said, and NSF's broad reach across the physical sciences makes it an ideal champion for such an effort.