OUTSIDE of the research community, the National Science Foundation isn't a prominent federal agency. So President Bush surprised NSF officials last month when the agency topped his list of spending priorities in his budget message to Congress. Now NSF director Erich Block and his colleagues face tight-fisted reality as the House Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Technology begins NSF funding hearings tomorrow. The euphoria of presidential favor could evaporate in the heat of deficit-reducing compromise.
Bush is following the Reagan fiscal 1990 budget in requesting some $2.15 billion for NSF. That's $263 million (14 percent) above the current fiscal 1989 budget plan. The Reagan administration asked for a 12 percent rise in NSF funding last year but got only 9.5 percent.
Analysis of the Bush budget by House Budget Committee staff shows that, as a category, general science, space, and technology would grow a hefty 10 percent.
Taken as a whole, that move would make this category the focal point of the largest dollar increase in the entire federal budget.
This is no accident. Research and development (R&D in Washington jargon), including basic science, falls squarely into one of the Bush administration's announced ``key priorities,'' namely ``Advancing Priorities for Growth and Competitiveness.'' Bush sees the NSF as a leading agency in pursuing that priority.
This is a 180 degree policy change from the early Reagan administration years. At that time, basic science in general and the science foundation in particular were targets for budget cuts, not increases.
That has changed over the past four years as the importance of both basic and applied research to American economic strength gained White House recognition. THIS new sense of priority was formalized two years ago in President Reagan's approval of plans to double the foundation's budget over five years. The requested 14 percent increase is in line with that strategy.
Congress, generally, has been sympathetic with this policy change. Last year it enacted, as law, the goal of doubling the foundation's budget. In announcing this week's hearings, subcommittee chairman Doug Walgren (D) of Pennsylvania said he's pleased the administration has ``underscored the importance of NSF.''
Actually, the foundation's roughly $2 billion budget is a small part of United States R&D spending, with private sources providing more funding than the federal government.
According to an analysis by Battell Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, R&D spending will run to $129.2 billion this calendar year as opposed to $125 billion in calendar year 1988 - a 3.4 percent rise.
Of that $129.2 billion total, private industry is expected to provide $63.3 billion while academic and other nonprofit organizations fund $5.19 billion for total private funding of about $68.5 billion. The federal government will provide $60.3 billion, with states and local governments chipping in the remaining $400 million.
Despite the attention paid to it, the NSF is not even the biggest federal supporter of basic science, especially among universities where it ranks below the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense.
But the NSF does spend 60 percent of its budget supporting individual scientists - a major factor in creative research. Thus the budget treatment NSF receives will be an indicator of how strongly committed Congress and the administration are to strengthening American science.