The NSF and Us: New Realities

Back to NSF in Peril

William Harris, Assistant Director of NSF's Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, spoke on "Realities and expectations in a time of change" at the 1996 AMS/MAA Joint Meetings in Orlando. He was sponsored by the AMS Committee on Science Policy, the JPBM, and the MAA Science Policy Committee.

Harris declared that "business as usual" is no longer possible, and that we should not expect things to return to normal. We must control our own destiny or somebody else will do so for us; we must hang together or we will hang separately. There is currently a great deal of uncertainty - there's no budget at this time, and no indication what the situation will be in Fiscal Year 1997. Because the academic research committee was so quiet while the government was shut down, there is no sense of urgency in Washington about the fate of the NSF. There appear to be no champions for science and mathematics at this time. Groups with active protagonists appear much better assured of funding. We have to participate in our participatory democracy!

It is essential to endeavor to make the NSF case clearly understood. NSF funding is a rapidly shrinking part of the federal budget that is not considered off limits for budget cutting, and America supports public needs only if convinced they're worthwhile. This is not a partisan issue and it serves no good to attack either Democrats or Republicans. Harris stated that in order to obtain funding for universities, it is necessary to talk about research together with education, and that we should look beyond mathematics since all disciplines are in this together.

A strategic planning process has been imposed on NSF; they cannot proceed on a year-to-year basis. In addition, a Government Results Act attempts to measure the effectiveness of spending tax dollars, and we should be aware of this. We need to understand our resources and our goals for the next three to five years.

NSF believes it must be more open to public discussion on strategic planning, and wishes the mathematics community to be involved in this. As a step in this direction, divisions and directors at NSF have Web pages, and they feel that dialog with the various scientific communities is absolutely essential.

NSF began strategic planning with the astronomy community last year. The mathematics community must identify goals before it can obtain resources. Harris counseled that if we do this there are opportunities for growth even in bad times. As an example, NSF has a new office to respond to creative proposals that involve the interfaces between the disciplines it supports, and applications.

Some budget questions to ponder: Suppose, for example, the mathematics budget were to be cut by 1/3. This could be done by making across-the-board cuts of 1/3 to each grant, or by cutting the number of grants by 1/3. We could decide to support only young people and post docs. We could fund for merit, not history.

Other questions: Why aren't more students going into mathematics? (Harris guarantees this will come up). What are the areas in which mathematics can lead? (E.g. simulation and modeling, which has applications perceived as timely and important.) We need to make clear our potential leadership role, which Harris feels does give us some unique opportunities.

We have to help the public understand our importance. We must participate fully in the planning debate; otherwise other groups will seize the issues and run with them.

- William Harris


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