The University Record, March 18, 2002

Engineering dean testifies before U.S. House subcommittee

By Laurel Thomas Gnagey

Additional research funding and lengthier award periods are needed from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to ensure that people, ideas and tools are available to properly advance the sciences. This was the bottom line of the message College of Engineering Dean Stephen Director delivered March 13 before the Subcommittee on Research of the House Committee on Science. Director addressed the subcommittee and submitted written testimony.

Director told the panel in his written report that NSF is “significantly underfunded,” with the average award of $93,000 and an average funding duration of 2.8 years. He compared it with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which awards on average $283,000 over 4.1 years. Director said some of his colleagues have given up on applying for NSF funding in favor of the more lucrative NIH dollars, causing them to change direction in their research in order to meet NIH guidelines, potentially costing the scientific community valuable knowledge.

Director called for a better balance in funding, saying that many projects born of NSF have been the underpinnings for later NIH research. “As an example, one outcome of the research conducted in our NSF funded Center for Ultrafast Optical Sciences was the development of a laser technology that will revolutionize eye surgery,” Director told the committee. He also cited development of the Internet and its impact on sequencing the human genome.

Director wrote of intense competition for NSF grants and of the discouragement of faculty who get “excellent” ratings on their proposals, yet receive no dollars. In 2001, the NSF funded 10,092 awards out of 32,882 proposals. He said 2,166 of the proposals receiving an evaluation of “excellent” from the merit reviewers were funded—335 that secured the same rating were not.

“With so few proposals being funded, our nation runs the risk of losing vital research and innovative ideas,” he said.

Director said a disturbing trend toward decreasing numbers of undergraduate and graduate degrees in the physical sciences and engineering fields “should be of great concern to Congress,” as well. “Besides supporting basic research, NSF funding is important for training our future scientists and engineers,” he told the panel.

Director concluded his remarks by making specific recommendations to the committee, including:

  • Increasing NSF dollars by $813 million in order to fund all proposals rated “very good” or better

  • Increasing the size and duration of each grant

  • Encouraging multidisciplinary initiatives

  • Increasing graduate student stipends from $21,500 to at least $25,000 per year

  • Allowing growth in NSF funding to keep pace with increases in NIH dollars

  • Boosting funding for fundamental research in areas that will assist in homeland and anti-terrorism efforts.

    Director said more than 12 percent of U-M research funding comes from NSF, with the College of Engineering receiving 30 percent of its research dollars from the foundation.