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Is This the End of the Endless Frontier for Science?

by Jeff Bingaman

The new Republican majority in Congress is seeking to alter fundamentally our federal government's role in science and technology. One feature of the recently passed Republican budget is a drastic cut in support for civilian research and development.

Little attention has been paid to this part of the budget balancing effort thus far compared to the substantial attention paid to the major debates on Medicare, Medicaid, education and tax cuts for the wealthy. But this may be the place where the Republican budgets will do the most damage to our nation's future well-being and prosperity.

Overall, civilian research and development spending will be cut by 30 to 40 percent by 2002 to a four decade low as a percentage of our economy. Some agencies, such as the NSF and NIH, may be cut only at the inflation rate over the next seven years. All other -- NASA, DOE, Commerce, etc.-- appear slated for a much deeper reductions.

What has the research community done or failed to do to deserve such treatment at this stage in our history? They won the Cold War, revolutionized medicine, invented computers, pioneered electronics and semiconductor devices, and invented a myriad of new materials that have fundamentally changed our lives. This is just as Vannevar Bush, one of the giants of the post World War II generation, predicted in his report, "Science: The Endless Frontier," a half century ago.

Federal investments in civilian research and development did not cause our federal deficit. Quite the opposite. There is almost universal recognition that these investments have paid for themselves many times over by the growth they contribute to our economy. It is not an accident that American industries from aerospace to agriculture to electronics to pharmaceuticals enjoy world leadership. Federal civilian research investments are truly investments in our nation's future and it is folly to be cutting them to this extent over the next seven years.

The cuts in federal support of civilian research will almost surely not be made up by the private sector. The Wall Street Journal on May 22 reported on the deep cuts being made by AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Kodak, Texaco and Xerox in their research budgets. The reason: private sector firms have an ever narrower focus and an ever greater unwillingness to invest in long-term research projects, the benefits of which are uncertain and usually not captured by one firm alone.

Neither Japan or Germany, our major economic rivals, show any sign that they will join us in slashing research spending. They and other industrialized countries around the world are seeking to emulate the successful American model of the last half century, just as we seem bent on abandoning it.

Our research universities, our federal laboratories, and our investments in small business research and innovation are the envy of the world. Under the Republican budgets, we risk losing a generation of research and young researchers, as the best students are diverted to other professions by the grim job prospects awaiting them in research careers.

How did we get into this fix and how can we get out of it? What we have seen over the last two years is the almost complete fracturing of a bipartisan consensus forged during the Reagan and Bush administrations on the appropriate federal role in civilian research and development. The consensus was that the federal role stops at precompetitive development activity, which should be conducted on a cost-shared basis with industry putting up at least half. Everyone agreed that the federal role does not include helping individual firms get specific products to the commercial marketplace.

During the 1992 campaign, President Bush proudly spoke of his efforts to expand civilian applied research "through a series of new, high pay-off investments in critical technologies." These included high performance computing and communication, biotechnology, manufacturing and materials, advanced battery research, and the establishment of regional manufacturing centers.

This notion of what the appropriate role of the federal government in research is and isn't was supported in numerous pieces of legislation passed since 1980 with bipartisan sponsorship and the blessings of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The vast majority of that legislation passed unanimously.

Unfortunately, by late 1993 the bipartisan consensus had fractured. As President Clinton and Vice President Gore pursued a science and technology policy almost identical to President Bush's, and did so with real commitment, our debate suddenly reverted to the sort of bumper sticker level which we had mistakenly thought was behind us. Charges of "industrial policy" and "picking winners and losers" were affixed to a broad range of civilian research programs.

By early this year, the bumper sticker pejorative had become "corporate welfare," a phrase unfortunately popularized by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to cover a variety of tax incentives and subsidies. Republican leaders argued mistakenly that federal support of research in areas from aeronautics to computers to health, energy, agriculture and environment was illegitimate, either because it was "corporate welfare" or represented "industrial policy" or merely was a duplication of private sector efforts.

Because I do not believe that this makes sense for our nation, I led an effort during the Senate budget debate to make spending on research and technology a high priority in allocating funds over the next seven years. The amendment would have put the Senate on record in favor of maintaining the overall fiscal year 1995 level for these programs (without inflation adjustment) over the next seven years. And, it would have put the Senate on record against any net tax cuts unless this goal was first achieved. Unfortunately, this very modest effort was defeated 53-47, with all the Republicans except for Senator Jeffords (R-VT) voting in opposition and all Democrats voting in favor.

I also supported a comprehensive "fair share" budget substitute offered by my colleague, Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), which would have balanced the budget while preserving funds for domestic discretionary programs. The "fair share" budget provided $36 billion in additional discretionary funds in 2002 for research, education and other priorities by limiting the growth of tax loopholes for corporations and wealthy individuals. It failed on a 60-39 vote, largely along party lines.

Almost a century ago in 1899, the head of the Patent Office, Charles Duell, proposed to close up shop because "everything that can be invented has been invented." A half century later Vannevar Bush laid out his starkly different vision for the federal role in science and technology. Now as we prepare to enter the 21st century, we face a choice between these competing visions.

Because I believe the scientific and technological frontier is still endless, because I do not want to risk condemning our children and grandchildren to a less prosperous, and less healthy, and less secure future, I for one intend to continue to fight for federal research investments even as we balance the federal budget. I hope that we can restore bipartisan support for these programs before the damage is irreversible. Unfortunately, I am afraid it may take years, not months, to achieve.

Senator Jeff Bingaman is a democrat from New Mexico. He is the ranking Democrat of the Energy Production and Regulation Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the ranking Democrat of the Acquisition and Technology Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin