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Clinton Administration Priorities Hurt Fundamental Science

by Dana Rohrabacher

On May 18, the House of Representatives passed a Budget Resolution that makes the necessary savings to balance the budget in seven years while preserving funding for core federal responsibilities like fundamental scientific research.

Basic research has been preserved in spite of efforts by the Clinton Administration to sacrifice it to fund the pet schemes of anti-nuclear power activists and environmental extremists. Many of them are now policymakers by virtue of political patronage appointments in this Administration.

In February, a series of hearings by the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, which I chair, revealed why the Clinton budget called for an increase of more than $500 million in non-defense programs at the Department of Energy. While General Science and Research Activities remained level at about $1 billion, the budget request called for increases ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent for myriad programs that are either unrealistic, such as the "clean car" initiative, or subsidize product development of existing technology. Certain trendy projects were slated for even bigger budget increases.

For example, the Clinton budget calls for a tripling of the budget of the Solar International Program. This increase consists of subsidies to companies to market their products overseas and aid to foreign countries to encourage them to use those products. There is not an ounce of science in it.

Another example is a request to triple the budget for a program that provides "guidance" to building designers for design of energy-efficient buildings. Again, millions of dollars under the heading of "research and development" that has little or nothing to do with either.

This budget sleight-of-hand could prove to be harmful to fundamental science funding during the budget process. In the short run, it has allowed the Clinton Administration and its allies in Congress to make political points by claiming that the Republican budget "slashes" funds for "Energy Supply Research and Development."

Gullible reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post, too lazy or too biased to check the facts, dutifully reprinted these charges. Based on its own reporter's error-plagued story of a few days before, the New York Times editorialized on May 23 that "the budget plan passed by the House mounts an assault on scientific research, science training and American research universities that are the envy of the world."

In fact, the so-called "Energy Supply Research and Development" budget, under the Clinton Administration, has become a rubric for programs that would be better labeled as "Corporate Welfare" or "The Pet Programs of Vice President Al Gore."

A casual observer might think that $50 million in funding for Advanced Light Water Reactors in the Nuclear Energy program might involve expenditures for science and technology. In reality, the technology has already been developed.

Now, anti-nuclear power activists appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have blocked licensing by General Electric and Westinghouse by adding testing requirements each year. The $50 million is going to two multi-billion dollar corporations to help them meet licensing requirements. Not a dime for research and development.

Even in the Office of Energy Research, which houses most of the Department of Energy's laboratory-based science programs, politically-correct pet programs have been hidden away. The National Institute for Global Environmental Change, for example, carries an $11 million price tag for research on climate change that is duplicative of research by other agencies but satisfies a White House requirement that every program include a climate-change component.

By lumping these mislabeled programs with funding for Basic Energy Sciences, Biological Research, and High Energy and Nuclear Physics, the Clinton Administration puts fundamental science program at risk as Congress moves through the appropriations process and House/Senate conferences meet to hash out budget differences.

That is why the Science Committee is taking steps to prevent wholesale cuts in core programs.

While drafting a budget authorization bill for non-defense related energy and science programs under the subcommittee's jurisdiction that meets our budget cap, we have tried to adhere to six criteria outlined in the report accompanying the budget resolution.

  • A focus on long-term, non-commercial R&D with a potential for significant scientific discovery, leaving commercialization to the marketplace.
  • Federal funding should end when technical feasibility is demonstrated. Production should be left to the marketplace.
  • We should fund projects that reflect revolutionary ideas that, if proven, would make possible the impossible within performance-based guidelines.
  • Evolutionary or incremental advances in technology should be handled by the private sector.
  • Each government-owned laboratory should confine in-house research to certain areas of expertise. Other research should be contracted out to industry, foundations and universities.
  • All R&D programs should be tightly focused on the agency's mission. All others should be terminated.

However, we also had to take a serious look at some programs that technically meet these criteria but do not stand up to a cost/benefit test. The Department of Energy's fusion research program is one example.

Over the past 40 years, U.S. taxpayers have paid more than $9 billion for research on fusion energy, yet none of the research has achieved "break-even," the point at which the fusion reaction generates the same amount of energy as is put in. To provide commercial power, a fusion reactor has to generate more energy than is put in, and no scientist has been able to tell me that we will reach that goal in less than 40 more years.

Although we should continue to pursue lower cost options and internationally cost-shared programs, we cannot, on our own, continue to pour billions into mega-construction projects called for in the President's budget.

As we move through the budget process this summer and fall, the House Science Committee will continue to fight for fundamental scientific research as a priority.

Just recently I was asked by a senior official at one of the agencies to sacrifice research funding to maintain a new pet program of grants started by the Clinton Administration. I refused. I would urge those in the scientific community to look at this Administration's support for science research funding with a jaundiced eye and support the Science Committee budget.

The Honorable Dana Rohrabacher has represented his Southern California District in the U.S. House of Representatives for the last six years. He is Chair of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Science Committee.


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