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OSTP director Holdren appears before House Science Committee

A tense meeting of the House Science Committee with OSTP director Holdren led to disagreement about climate change, the National Science Foundation’s grant-making process, and NASA’s programs.

Originally published at FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News.

There was little that Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren and the Republican members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee agreed about at last Wednesday’s two-hour hearing on the Obama administration’s FY 2015 S&T budget request. Predictably, there was disagreement about climate change, the National Science Foundation’s grant-making process, and NASA’s programs.

“The truth is we all have things to be concerned about in this budget, but the root of the problem is that there isn’t enough money to go around to adequately fund all of our priorities,” said ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) in her opening statement, one of the few statements that were made that everyone in the room probably would agree on. Holdren pointed this out as well, reminding the committee that total discretionary spending for all federal programs increases by 0.2% for FY 2015, which starts 1 October.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was particularly critical in his opening statement. Among his criticisms: “The Administration also has not been as open and honest with the American people as it should,” he said, faulting the Environmental Protection Agency’s promulgation of regulations and the National Science Foundation. Smith criticized the foundation, saying, “When we asked the National Science Foundation (NSF) last year for their justification in funding numerous research grants, the NSF refused to provide a response. All government employees and their agency heads need to remember they are accountable to the American taxpayer who pays their salary and funds their projects. It is not the government’s money; it’s the people’s money.” Smith later returned to this point when discussing six “questionable” foundation grants, saying NSF officials should justify why the grants were made. Holdren replied that he would work with Smith to provide some answers.

Johnson both praised and criticized the FY 2015 request. She lauded the requests for advanced manufacturing R&D and workforce development, increased funding for climate change research and mitigation, and several applied research programs at the Department of Energy (DOE). She was less pleased with the NASA request for its human exploration and science programs.

Holdren reaffirmed the administration’s support for science while acknowledging that requests for some programs were less than desired, saying when referring to NASA’s missions that “there is not enough to go around.” He repeatedly defended the Obama administration’s climate change R&D program, resisting the efforts made by some members to provide exact numbers about scientists who believe in human-induced warming and the impact of human activities on temperature or the severity of storms.

Holdren was asked about the administration’s FY 2015 proposal to terminate funding for NASA’s SOFIA program. The FY 2015 budget request document NASA sent to Congress explained (see page SCI-5 here):

“Due to its high annual operating cost, the administration greatly reduces funding for the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) project. SOFIA has encountered technical and schedule challenges, and while the observatory will address emerging scientific questions, its contributions to astronomical science will be significantly less than originally envisioned. Funding for SOFIA, which costs almost $80 million per year to operate, can have a larger impact supporting other science missions. NASA will work with current partner Germany and potential partners to identify a path forward for SOFIA with greatly reduced NASA funding. Unless partners are able to support the U.S. portion of SOFIA costs, NASA will place the aircraft into storage by FY 2015.” 

One of those critical of this decision was Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) who said that Congress would not agree to the elimination of SOFIA. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) also criticized this decision, citing the 23 years and $1.1 billion spent on the project, only to have its termination announced 11 days after the plane and its observatory had become operational. Holdren replied that SOFIA is an attractive project, but that its high operating costs are very difficult to accommodate within the budget cap. He told the committee that NASA will look for other international partners to share SOFIA’s operating costs. Also expressing misgivings about this decision were Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), and Smith.

To charges that NSF’s grant-making process is not clear, Holdren pointed to changes that the foundation had made to increase transparency and accountability, adding “NSF had done a great job.”

There was also discussion about DOE’s fusion program. Lofgren and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) wanted to know if consideration was given to establishing an energy production research program based on progress made at the National Ignition Facility and DOE’s inertial confinement fusion program. Holdren “applaud[ed] the advances” but said that until ignition was achieved it would be premature to establish an energy program. Lofgren also worried about the hundreds of employees who have left Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, saying that the workforce needed stability.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) asked about energy sources for NASA’s deep-space program. As described in the NASA budget document (see page SCI-9 here):

“To support future planetary missions in the 2020s and beyond, NASA is collaborating with the Department of Energy for plutonium-238 production. Plutonium-238 generates electrical power for missions where solar power is inadequate. We have recently produced small amounts of plutonium-238, and by optimizing the production process, we can produce about 1.5 to 2 kilograms per year by 2019. This amount will be enough to meet NASA’s projected needs for future planetary missions. The Science budget request fully funds this requirement.”

Holdren told Posey he felt this agreement would provide sufficient amounts of this material.

Not surprisingly, there was discussion about STEM education, reaching out to female and minority students, informal science education, and the role of parents in supporting these efforts. Other questions centered on comparative levels of support for science and technology in the Obama and the previous Bush administrations. The hearing ended without concluding observations by Smith. Looking ahead to the FY 2015 budget cycle, Holdren’s prepared testimony aptly stated:

“Congress has recognized that retaining America’s global leadership position in science, technology, and innovation is not a partisan issue—and not an issue to gamble with. We hope to extend and to build on this mutual understanding and appreciation, in our interactions with both the Senate and the House, so we can continue to strengthen the Nation’s science and technology portfolio and all the economic and other societal benefits it underpins.”

Richard M. Jones works in the Government Relations Division at the American Institute of Physics.

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