Hitching NASA onto the competitiveness initiative

Elsewhere in her speech at CSIS, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison discussed legislation the Senate Commerce Committee recently passed regarding the American Competitive Initiative and similar Congressional efforts:

We are now going to focus on having more math and science majors in college, produce more scientists and more research in America, and NASA needs to be part of that. The National Science Foundation will be a major focus, but so will NASA. When we passed our bill out of committee last week that will be part of this competitiveness initiative, that responds to the report [“Rising Above the Gathering Storm” by the National Academies], NASA is going to be hand-in-hand with the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, in being on the leading edge of basic science research in our country.

The legislation she is referring to is the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 2802), which the Commerce Committee approved unanimously on May 18. One of the hallmarks of the President’s initiative is a doubling of research budgets at organizations like NSF (but not NASA), and S.2802 increases the authorized funding for NSF from $6.4 billion in FY07 to $11.4 billion in FY11. The original version of the legislation had only a few provisions for NASA, including the creation of an “Aeronautics Institute for Research” within NASA to manage its aeronautics programs and a “Basic Research Executive Council” to oversee basic science programs within the agency. The committee, though, added several additional provisions to the version of the bill reported out of committee, most notably this section:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall increase funding for basic science and research, including for the Explorer Program, for fiscal year 2007 by $160,000,000 by transferring such amount for such purpose from accounts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for fiscal year 2007. The transfer shall be contingent upon the availability of unobligated balances to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

It’s interesting that the committee singled out the Explorer program in particular. While it is one of the planned cutbacks in NASA’s science programs that has met with strong opposition from scientists, that opposition stems only in part on the science, basic or otherwise, they perform: such missions, advocates argue, serve as “training grounds” for scientists and engineers, preparing them for work on larger missions down the road.

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