A Bush administration budget proposal to transfer some research programs to the National Science Foundation could hurt Bay-related research, scientists say.

In its proposed 2003 budget, the administration called for removing the 35-year-old Sea Grant program from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and transferring it to the NSF.

The budget also said the administration is considering a shift of funds from the Smithsonian Institution’s research facilities, including one heavily involved in Bay research, to the NSF beginning in 2004.

Kevin Sellner, who heads the Chesapeake Research Consortium, a nonprofit coalition of the major Bay research institutions, chalked up the budget proposal to the belief by some that “research is research. But when you get into the nitty gritty, what the programs do are very, very different,” he said.

The administration’s budget proposal gave the NSF, which provides competitive grants to researchers around the nation, high marks for its performance. Last December, the White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels called the NSF one of the “true centers of excellence” in the government.

No one disputes that the NSF supports high-quality research. “I’m one of the first people to believe that NSF should get a huge increase to its budget, it’s a tremendous organization,” said Jonathan Kramer, who oversees the Maryland Sea Grant program. “But there is a bit of a culture clash between what Sea Grant is and what the NSF is. We are programs that are driven locally.”

The NSF tends to support research aimed at national priorities, much of which is basic research that helps scientists improve their knowledge of how things work, but does not necessarily have an immediate application.

By contrast, each of the 30 university-based Sea Grant programs around the nation tends to emphasize research that is important to its region and is immediately relevant, either to decision makers, or to businesses and the public.

In the Bay, for example, Sea Grant programs in Virginia and Maryland have supported work on aquaculture, studies related to numerous fisheries, including striped bass and blue crabs, as well as some of the original research about the impact of nutrients on Bay water quality and underwater grasses.

To transfer the results of research to affected constituencies, education and outreach efforts are part of each Sea Grant program.

“Sea Grant does tend to focus on research that has some applied options or down-the-road applications to management policy decisions,” Sellner said. “The NSF doesn’t have any commitment like that.”

The Sea Grant Association, which represents all of the Sea Grant programs in the nation, issued a statement saying no change should be considered before Congress reviews the issue, or before the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which was appointed by the president in December, makes recommendations next year about ocean-related federal policies.

The budget shed little light about plans for Sea Grant, other than saying it would be administered in partnership with NOAA to ensure that its “research and outreach objectives are reflected in the program’s ongoing work.”

In addition, it said it would consider transferring funding for the Smithsonian’s science programs to the NSF after the completion of a review by an outside panel.

The administration had considered switching about $3.4 million in “noncompetitive” funding for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD, to the NSF. That is the money that is used to pay for the basic operation, and support staff, of the center. That transfer, as well as moving funds for the Smithsonian’s other two research centers, was rescinded pending further evaluation after sharp criticism in the scientific community.

“We would have lost this lab,” Sellner said. “Since the NSF doesn’t support the infrastructure of laboratories, the [SERC] money would go into a competitive pool. But what about lights, electricity, support staff, all the infrastructure you need at a facility to essentially allow you to compete?”

SERC is well-known for decades-long research on how watersheds impact water quality. It has also maintained the longest consistent survey of blue crabs in the Bay, and serves as a nationwide clearinghouse for information about ballast water, which is moved from place to place by ships, often causing invasions by foreign aquatic species.