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Science & Technology Challenges Before the 105th Congress

By Senator Pete Domenici

demeniciThe 105th Session of Congress has some very major challenges as it seeks to set priorities in a time of significant budget constraints. I am a strong supporter of the nation's science and technology programs, but we face a fiscal environment in which it will be increasingly difficult to protect those programs. The scientific community must work especially closely with the Congress and the Administration to help craft the federal budget for 1998 and the years beyond.

Science and technology programs must compete with hundreds of other federal programs for a shrinking level of discretionary dollars left in the federal budget after we pay our obligations to entitlement programs and interest on our debt. During the Kennedy administration, more than two- thirds of the budget was available for discretionary spending. But this year, only 34 percent of the budget is available for all discretionary programs, including everything from defense to the nondefense components of the Department of Energy (DOE), to housing, environment, job training, education, and to many more programs.

In 1997, 51 percent of the budget will go toward entitlement programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other mandated programs. Interest on the national debt takes 15 percent of the budget, which leaves us with that last 34 percent. Because defense requires almost half of the discretionary funds, we are left with about 17 percent to fund all the nondefense programs, including the nondefense science programs.

As you hear debates on the role that entitlement programs play in shaping the country's destiny, remember those figures above. Without changes in the rate of growth of entitlement programs, our problem with limited discretionary resources will only be dramatically compounded in the future. Some projections show entitlement programs consuming all the federal revenues by 2012. Concern over entitlements has led to a consensus between Congress and the Administration to seek a balanced budget by 2002, although the paths laid out to this goal by these two architects differ in important aspects.

The balanced budget is essential for the nation, and essential for the health of science in this nation. Even if we succeed in reaching a balanced budget in 2002, continued vigilance will be required to keep a deficit from ballooning again beyond 2003.

A balanced budget will help create an environment where innovation and scientific progress can flourish. Without it, the ability to fund science programs within a shrinking pool of discretionary dollars will become increasingly difficult. Your friends in Congress need your help to talk with your colleagues about the dangers of continued growth in entitlements. The nation needs a broader consensus on the importance of corralling entitlements.

As part of my Budget Committee responsibilities, I'm also trying to move to a two-year budget cycle. Better understanding of budget expectations can help many parts of our federal system plan more effectively, particularly the science community. Certainly the time scale for most truly innovative research is far longer than one year. I'm hopeful that doubling the planning horizon will help increase the progress made with the available funds. Researchers will save time from annual budget requests and Congress will have time to focus on key national challenges besides the budget, including oversight of the programs it funds. There will be real benefits to all from a biennial budget cycle.

Despite all the budget challenges, I'm proud the Congress has treated science very well. From fiscal years 1996 to 1997, the AAAS calculated an increase in basic research of 2.7 percent to $14.8 billion. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided the largest component of federal support for basic research, with $6.9 billion (up 6.4 percent). The National Science Foundation was up 2.5 percent, and DOE rose 2.3 percent.

The Department of Energy's laboratories face tremendous challenges, perhaps none as substantially as the national security laboratories at Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia. As the nation has moved beyond nuclear testing, those laboratories have the awesome challenge of maintaining whatever stockpile the country needs, with unquestioned safety, security, and reliability - without the ability to test. Some have likened the challenge as akin to storing a modern airliner for a few decades, then traveling on it with little notice. The labs must explore whole new areas of science to thoroughly understand how the passing years impact the stockpiled weapons. Of course, at the same time the labs and facilities are supporting extensive dismantlement to dramatically reduce the size of the stockpile. But as the number of weapons in the stockpile becomes smaller, the performance of those remaining becomes even more important.

The DOE weapons labs are engaged in a new program, Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship, to accomplish this new and challenging mission. It may well be one of the greatest challenges for these labs.

Even with the expertise resident within the labs, they will need significant help from the scientific community, from universities, other labs, and from industry. Alliances with these other providers of science and technology will be even more important in the future than in the past and opportunities for these alliances need to be sought out and nurtured.

One excellent example of such alliances involves the Department's program on the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), with the goal to provide vastly improved simulation capabilities to the weapons labs, a sort of "numerical test site," by 2003-4. To reach their goal of 100 Tflop speeds, tremendous advances in the state-of-the-art are needed. Existing alliances already involve Intel, IBM, and Cray/Silicon Graphics with the laboratories. Academic partners are also being sought, and significant resources are being dedicated to these partnerships. The ASCI program is the type of major national alliance that will not only enable the laboratories to meet the challenges of their mission, but also, through the alliances with industry and universities, enable whole new computing paradigms to be explored and utilized across the country.

Another excellent example of a national alliance, with truly global impact, is the DOE's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention. This program couples institutes in the former Soviet Union to ten of the U.S. national laboratories, and meets key national goals for nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The program conducts projects in cooperation with a coalition of 75 U.S. corporations and a number of universities. It involves weapons scientists in the Newly Independent States in peaceful commercial activities, and helps to stem a "brain drain" of weapons-trained scientists away from their parent institutes and potentially to countries ready to exploit their knowledge. The program already engages about 2,700 former weapons scientists of the former Soviet Union in more than 250 projects. About 50 of the projects involve cost sharing with U.S. industry.

Over the last few years, several studies like the Galvin Commission study on Alternative Futures for the national labs, have evaluated aspects of the national laboratory system. The report of the Galvin Commission noted several concerns, including many surrounding the mode in which the Department of Energy has managed the national labs. There was great concern expressed about micro-management of the labs, and excessive bureaucracy and over-regulation. There has been an abundance of rhetoric in Congress as well with concerns about the DOE. There have been some who have advocated dissolving the Department.

In this session of Congress, Senator Rod Grams of Minnesota introduced the Department of Energy Abolishment Act of 1997 (S.236), I do not support this bill as it is written. It would move the national security labs, Los Alamos, Sandia, and Livermore to the Defense Department. I do not concur that we should change the civilian control over nuclear weapon technology that has been our nation's credo for the past five decades. It would transfer some of the other labs to the NSF. I do not want to destroy the synergies that exist among several of the components of the present Department, and I do not want to see the NSF moved away from its currently unbiased peer review into an environment where their judgment could be questioned through having vested interests in some providers of technology.

However, my statements should not be taken as an endorsement of the present DOE and its operations. Secretary Federico Pe$a will have a significant challenge to move the Department further toward the recommendations of the Galvin commission, with significantly less micro- management and over-regulation. In addition, the synergies among various DOE offices are far from optimum. But I propose that Secretary Pe$a be given the opportunity to make these improvements before serious consideration of the drastic step of dismantling the Department. If any dismantlement were to be considered, I would provide alternatives for consideration.

I recently co-sponsored with Senators Frist, Lieberman, and Rockefeller a bipartisan Senate Science and Technology Caucus Roundtable discussion. During the Roundtable, we interacted with a group of ten prominent speakers representing different perspectives on the national science and technology enterprise. I was struck by the strong consensus on the national critical importance of science and technology and the enabling roles that the federal government plays in the overall health of that enterprise. Speakers emphasized the importance to the nation of maintaining the level of excellence we currently have in our university research system and its key educational role. In a time of constrained budgets, many spoke to the importance of partnerships that include all components of the national science and technology enterprise, to best leverage the investments made in each toward larger end goals. Ideas generated from that Roundtable will be evaluated over the next few months.

In closing, let me reiterate my concern over the impact of entitlement programs on the federal budget. All concerned citizens need to carefully evaluate the path that unbounded entitlements will chart for our nation. Your views on entitlements need to reach your elected representatives so that this 105th Congress can move effectively ahead in the best interests of our nation.

Senator Pete Domenici is serving his 5th term as senator from New Mexico. He is Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and Chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin