Before Congress in Support of NSF

David M. Bressoud, April 2011

On Friday, March 11, I had my first experience testifying before the US Congress. I was one of a parade of witnesses to appear before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies to request that the National Science Foundation (NSF) be supported in the 2012 Fiscal Year budget at the level requested by the President, $7.8 billion, a 13% increase over the 2010 budget authorization for NSF. Of course, the real concern is more immediate. The federal government, including NSF, is being funded for 2011 under continuing resolutions that allow for no increase in funding, and there is enormous pressure to cut back on all federal programs. Desirable as it is, a 13% increase for NSF in 2012 may be unrealistic. But this hearing was an important opportunity to convey the importance of continuing and strengthening the funding of NSF.

The call had gone out to the scientific societies to request time to testify if they so wished, and MAA was one of many that responded. George Andrews was there to represent AMS. We were two of the nineteen associations, university systems, and research centers that spoke in support of the 2012 budget proposal for NSF funding.

Opposite us in the hearing room were three congressmen: Frank Wolf of Virginia, chairman of the subcommittee, Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat, and John Culberson of Texas. All three expressed strong support for NSF and sympathy with our request to honor the President’s proposed funding level. They all seemed genuinely interested in the issues and concerns voiced by the witnesses, but Wolf and Culberson repeatedly came back to the point that unless we see reform of entitlement programs, it will be very difficult to maintain, much less increase, NSF funding.

We have known for years that the commitments to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are unsustainable. We have reached the point where these three entitlement programs together with other legally mandated programs and payments on the national debt consume every dollar that comes in to the federal government. All defense and all discretionary programs are now funded entirely with borrowed money. Chairman Wolf assured us that if entitlements could be tackled, there would be no problem funding NSF at the requested level, and he asked all of us to make the case to our members to support entitlement reform. This column constitutes my own response to his request. Such reform is long overdue, and I believe that it is appropriate for the scientific community to engage in thinking about and pressing for changes in these programs.

At the same time, I recognize that entitlement reform is going to be very difficult. The issue has come to a head this year because of the refusal of many congressmen and senators to allow for any increase in the federal budget. While the growth of entitlement spending is an important problem that must be tackled now, it would be a serious mistake to use a failure of entitlement reform as an excuse to damage NSF by denying it the full funding it needs.

My Testimony

Each witness had four minutes in which to present his or her case, though we also were permitted a written statement of up to five pages (see [1] for the written statement that I filed on behalf of the MAA). I used my time to draw attention to a few critical points:

  1. The production of new generations of scientists and engineers is essential for the future prosperity of the United States, but we are slipping in our ability to do so. We currently graduate fewer engineers each year than we did a quarter century ago, and our ability to attract and retain women and students from underrepresented minorities, after growing during the 1980s and ‘90s, has declined over the past decade.
  2. The number of African-Americans majoring in mathematics and statistics declined by 25% from its high point in 1997 to 2008, and the absolute number of African-Americans majoring in engineering has also decreased in recent years.
  3. We know, in broad terms, what works for attracting and retaining students in the math-intensive majors. It requires interesting and challenging courses combined with strong mentoring and support programs as exemplified by the Emerging Scholars Program at the University of Texas, Austin and the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute at Arizona State University.
  4. NSF is the only federal agency that focuses on undergraduate education in science and mathematics. It plays a critical role in promoting the programs that work and helping to enable their adoption and adaptation to local needs and conditions. Within NSF, most of the efforts directed toward undergraduate education reside within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR), which includes the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE). Unfortunately, EHR is slated for a much smaller increase (4.4%) for 2012 than the rest of NSF.

Chairman Wolf expressed his appreciation for my comments and his shared concern with the points I raised. He added that his subcommittee has asked EHR for a report on what works in mathematics and science education. He encouraged me to lend the support of the MAA to working with the Assistant Director of EHR, Joan Ferrini-Mundy, in the production of such a document. MAA and EHR already have a very good working relationship, and I will do what I can to ensure that it continues and is further strengthened.

[1] Statement of Dr. David Bressoud, Past-President of the Mathematical Association of America and DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics, Macalester College before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, March 11, 2011.

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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Past-President of the MAA. You can reach him at This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.