APS News

U.S. Science Policy Shifting in Era of Political Change

The end of the Cold War and the accelerated globalization of the American economy are shifting long-held rationales for policies on scientific research and education, according to speakers at the March Meeting Monday morning session on science policy. In addition, growing public dissatisfaction with its government and science is further weakening support for federal research funding.

"While certainly not the end of national security issues requiring substantial science and technology involvement, the end of the Cold War resulted in a weaker engine for the freight train that has pulled federal support for science and technology, including substantial civilian research and development activities," said Tom Weimer, staff director on the House Basic Research Subcommittee. "From my personal observation, I have seen no replacement emerging with the equivalent political support that the national security engine once enjoyed in engendering support."

Vannevar Bush's paradigm for research and development, considered sacrosanct for almost half a century, has been declared by some analysts to be irrelevant for America in the 1990s. In addition, the demands for change expressed by voters in the 1992 and 1994 elections, create a new political context within which science policies must be placed. Downsizing of the federal government, begun by the Clinton administration, has accelerated dramatically with the 104th Congress. "The Congressional members I deal with feel they've heard a clarion call to balance the budget and downsize government, and their goal is to put in place the framework to achieve this, resulting in expanded opportunity and economic growth," said Weimer.

Further complicating matters is the relative youth of the 104th Congress, both in terms of age and legislative experience. Weimer estimates that 62 percent of his committee has served for three years or less, a fact which is relevant because it generally takes one to three terms for a new member to become familiar enough with issues to engage in science policy debates. There is also "a young bull versus old bull herd dynamic" present in Congress that cuts across party lines, and has complicated the leadership's ability to implement their agenda.

In terms of the federal budget, the debate appears to be less over direction, than the pace and the ratio of research versus development dollars, and military versus civilian spending. Weimer believes that science isn't faring any worse than other federal discretionary programs under the FY1996 budget, but cautioned that as the appropriations pie gets smaller, some science and technology programs will be competing directly with other discretionary programs, many of which have strong advocacy groups with considerable lobbying experience.

The most complicating and controversial factor is the desire to link changes in science policy with a seven-year balanced budget plan. "There is no such thing as a seven-year plan in Washington," said Robert Park, APS director of public affairs, of Congressional efforts in this area, pointing out that any one Congress can overturn the work of its predecessors in a matter of minutes.

Nonetheless, some general trends are emerging. All the panelists agreed that big expensive projects, whether domestic or international in scope, will have difficulty acquiring federal funding, although Weimer believes the Large Hadron Collider might be funded as an international collaborative effort if the scientific community can agree to make it a priority. Also, while there has been some discussion of consolidating the various agencies, all of whose budgets fall under different committees, the process is most likely to continue as it has in the past, according to Pat Windham, who serves Democratic members as Senior Staff Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Park believes that the biggest impact of the move to downsize government is likely to be on the culture of science, rather than on research support levels. For example, the APS has learned to lobby in the last 13 years. "There are a lot of people who are concerned about that change, and feel we are trading our credibility for short-term security," said Park. "That may be, but I don't think there's any turning back at this point."

The role of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has come under scrutiny, particularly with the demise of the Office of Technology Assessment. "The job in OSTP is not to represent the scientific community within the executive office," said Ernest Moniz, the OSTP's associate director for science. "The job is to provide advice and policy guidance to the President and his administration, although part of it is to seek out and welcome input from the scientific community."

The industrial workplace has also undergone dramatic change. Most central research laboratories no longer exist, and the industrial commitment to basic research is much less than it was two to three decades ago. Industry demands better educated and more highly skilled workers, even as the nature of science education and the role of the federal government in providing that education is being altered.

However, while Congress is aware of these trends, it is sharply divided along party lines in terms of how to respond. According to Windham, Democrats are concerned about the gap between universities and other laboratories, and believe it is a legitimate government role to foster partnerships between industry and government. Many Republicans, in contrast, don't believe government should have any involvement in funding industrial research, labelling it "corporate welfare."

All the panelists agreed on the need for a continuing program of education for new Congressional members on why federally funded support is an investment. "Most of the members are going to be instinctively against government investment in almost anything unless they see it as having some practical value," said Windham. "The educational function therefore will become all the more important as we get into the continuing budget crunch over the next couple of years."

Weimer identified three ways of educating Congress: through discussions with staff with experience in science policy debates; through a permanent Washington presence, such as professional associations; and through their constituents, which Weimer believes is the most effective route, particularly if young researchers are involved. "Their enthusiasm for research and their goals really comes through and leaves a very positive impression on Congressional members," he said.

There is also a need for more vocal input from the scientific community, the panelists concurred. It is equally important to avoid the appearance of entitlement, and to link research to concrete objectives that could benefit society. "I think the scientific community must take the posture of assuming its responsibilities to society and to members of Congress," Moniz concluded. "It has a responsibility not simply for lobbying, but for education, and the process only becomes education when it is run in a continuing mode."


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin