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Formulating a Cohesive Science Budget Policy

By Congressman Robert S. Walker (R-PA) Chairman, House Committee on Science

walkerDespite the disappointing failure to achieve a balanced budget agreement with the Administration in 1995, the House of Representatives has accomplished a remarkable amount of its agenda. For the first time in many years, congressional leaders put forth a comprehensive program for revitalizing the economy by reducing the deficit and the debt burden faced by future generations.

Within the context of that budget debate, it has been my goal as Chairman of the House Science Committee to assure a strong position for science policy. Federal funding for science has been viewed by the science community and the nation as a crucial function of the government and it is. Research enjoys strong support in Congress but, it's no longer a blank check. Researchers are increasingly called upon to justify their work and their results, and the competition among scientific fields is increasing.

Just how can science expect to fare in this climate of deficit reduction and government downsizing? It would be beneficial for science if the way in which federal science budgeting is conducted could be reformed. A sensible way to consider science budget issues is to change the way we approach science policy and budgeting.

It is inaccurate to say that we even have a science budget now because science spending is spread over many appropriations bills. Last year, I authored an unprecedented Omnibus Civilian Science Authorization Act which bundled all of the Science Committee's authorization bills into one. This approach helped to emphasize three points: science is an important national issue; civilian science R&D should be considered as a whole, in order to better set priorities; and science is vital to our long-term national interest.

For these same reasons, the report issued by Dr. Frank Press and his committee at the National Academy of Sciences, Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology, is particularly timely. The committee has done an excellent job of succinctly identifying the circumstances in which science policy is made and the questions policy makers face. The Science Committee recently held a hearing on the report and there are areas of the report which I believe are particularly relevant.

The report calls for the development of an annual comprehensive federal science and technology budget and an overall review by the Congress. While a laudable goal, consideration of the science and technology budget as a whole through the entire authorization and appropriations process probably is not possible under the current committee structure. The dispersal of research entities throughout the executive branch also limits the effectiveness of this approach. We have tried through reducing the number of committees, and by proposing the elimination and consolidation of departments and agencies, to bring about a more cohesive and congruent science policy. This is a long-term project, but one still worth pursuing.

Dr. Press' report calls for ensuring that the science and technology budget of the federal government is "sufficient to allow the United States to achieve preeminence in a select number of fields and to perform at a world-class level in the other major fields." The Press Group suggests that these reallocation decisions be made with the advice and guidance of expert panels. A potential problem with this approach is that the recommendations of the panel will necessarily be both politicized and controversial. There is a true danger that the deliberations of these panels will be so lengthy and contentious that the final recommendations will be meaningless and out of date. The federal government has an ingrained tendency to work slowly; the outside world, however, is more suited to responding quickly to changing circumstances.

I am strongly supportive of the recommendation which urges increased international cooperation in science and technology. In this fiscal climate, particularly when it comes to large projects, such as the International Space Station and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), international cooperation is essential to their successful completion.

Another recommendation with which I strongly agree is the call for federal laboratories to focus their work on the missions of the sponsoring agency. We can no longer afford to allow federal laboratories to go off in search of their own missions in order to justify their existence. The Science Committee has always supported technology transfer from the labs to the private sector, but as a by-product, not as a primary mission. The labs were established to support the research needs of the Defense Department or NASA or the Department of Energy, not the private sector, and we should insist that they maintain this mission-support focus.

A related recommendation is receiving some criticism - that federal research funding should generally favor academic institutions. The benefits of conducting research at universities are correctly enumerated in the report; however, benefits which accrue to the labs, such as multi-disciplinary, facility-intensive, and mission-oriented research, argue for strong support for them, as well. The academic and laboratory cultures should recognize that this report opens a door through which more aggressive communication and research partnerships should be pursued to build on the strengths of each.

The recommendation for sustaining merit review as the method of awarding research funding is also an excellent point. Without the rigorous evaluation of technical quality, relevance to mission that can only be provided by a researcher's peers, the United States cannot hope to maintain its recognized role as world leader in so many fields. In the past ten years or so, we have seen the disturbing practice of academic earmarking emerge in the legislative process, whereby programs are funded not necessarily on their merit, but because their sponsors have been able to use political muscle. Happily, I think we've finally begun to see a reversal of this trend, but the science community must realize that in engaging in these tactics, the research enterprise as a whole suffers.

One of the report's more controversial parts is the statement that the "federal government should encourage, but not directly fund, private sector commercial technology development." The line between basic research and applied technology is not an easy one to draw. The Science Committee has adopted as one of its precepts the idea that scarce federal resources should be concentrated on basic research activities, rather than on programs which subsidize private sector technology development. Clearly, a number of our federal agencies, such as NASA and the Defense Department, undertake technology development in pursuit of their missions. We largely support those activities. We have, however, taken a firm stand, both out of ideology and practicality, that the financial support of private sector technology development is industrial policy and is not an appropriate role for the federal government. Accordingly, we have taken steps over the past year to reduce the size of the federal programs which have been created for this purpose. The United States did not come to be a world leader in technology because the government invested in one technology over another. We are the leader in so many fields because we had an economic climate, and a legal and financial system which fostered and nourished innovation and private enterprise.

If used well by policy makers in both the legislative and executive branches, the Press report is a good tool for evaluating science policy. The danger is that it will be filed away as yet another contribution to the archives. I hope not. I want to use this report as a starting point for the discussions we will have over the coming months about better ways to approach the policies and the budget that science needs.

Congressman Robert S. Walker has represented the 16th District of Pennsylvania for 19 years. He is Chairman of the House Science Committee and is a member of the House Republican Steering Committee.


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