APS News

Inside The Beltway

Scientists and Politicians Joined at the Hip

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

For politicians as well as physicists, life after the end of the Cold War is fraught with complications. Public attitudes have changed dramatically, and woe unto anyone who fails to recognize it.

For more than four decades the threat posed by Communism provided an umbrella under which physics research flourished in America. What was good for physics was good for national defense and good for the nation. The public forgave the scientific elite their eccentricities and their arrogance so long as America remained secure.

American politicians also had an easier time during this era. The Iron Curtain might have been maintained by our Soviet adversaries to keep the Russian and Eastern European people in the dark, but it also provided wonderful political cover for our own elected officials. So long as they cloaked their actions under the guise of national security, they could expect the average American voter to forgive them many of their transgressions.

Welcome to the 1990's. The external threat is gone and the public memory is short. American voters have become more fickle and less tolerant of actions they don't immediately perceive as being in their best interest. For scientists and politicians, alike, the message is clear: Shape up or be shown the door.

The message seems to be getting through. For both communities, 1997 is rapidly becoming a watershed year. Scientists have long been known in Washington for building protective walls around their individual disciplines and, when necessary, taking dead aim at their colleagues in other allied areas. But last March, in an unprecedented display of unity, the leaders of 23 professional societies agreed to break down the internal barriers and endorse a Joint Statement on Scientific Research.

By June, the list of endorsements had grown to 46. Members of the media and members of Congress, many of whom had greeted the initial announcement with skepticism, had begun to take notice. And with good reason.

The message had substance. The sciences are interdependent, and federal investments in research, which are critical to our nation's future economy and quality of life, have been on a precipitous downward slide. What is needed is a commitment to reverse the trend, beginning with a 7 percent increase for Fiscal Year 1998.

The message also had clout. More than 1.5 million scientists, mathematicians and engineers were singing from the same score. Translate those numbers into votes and you can see why Capitol Hill might pay attention.

Fortuitously, the message struck a political resonance. After two years of lobbing grenades at each other, both parties paused to take stock of the damage they had inflicted and discovered that neither had suffered so much in the eyes of the public as had the institution of democracy itself. For his part, after the 1996 ballots had been counted, President Clinton said that he was committed to seeking common ground. So too did the Republicans, but they called it "bipartisanship."

Although science had not escaped the partisan battles of the 104th Congress, it had the advantage of a legacy of bipartisan support, lasting for almost half a century. It became a natural point around which both political parties could once again unite. The Science Committee, under the guidance of its new chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), reported out a series of authorization bills with virtually no internal dissent. The committee recommended increases for R&D that averaged 3 percent, with some basic research programs exceeding 7 percent.

The Senate, too, began to respond to the science drum beat. At the suggestion of Bill Frist (R-TN) and with the cooperation of Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), a bipartisan Senate S&T Caucus came to life, its initial membership filled out by Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). And early in the congressional session, Phil Gramm (R-TX) offered a resolution that would double federal investments in civilian research over ten years, which amounts to a 7 percent annual boost.

The President also began to send out strong signals. Having barely mentioned science during his first term, he began to interject it into his speeches. By late spring it had achieved sufficient prominence to become a central theme of his Morgan State commencement address. (see Back Page, pg 12)

Of course, speeches, resolutions and even authorization bills do not produce tangible results. It's the appropriations bills that tell the real story. As 1996 Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. said in Jerry Maguire, "Show me the money!"

And here science is on a collision course with the political realities of the 1990's. Without the cover of a foreign threat, lawmakers are under the domestic gun to reduce taxes, cut the deficit and preserve popular programs, all at the same time. Omit one of these, and you're dead politically.

Ask George Bush, who preserved entitlements and put into place a 5-year $593-billion deficit reduction plan. But he raised taxes, and he lost the Presidency as a result.

Ask Bill Clinton, who preserved entitlements and put into place a 5-year $487-billion deficit reduction program. But he did not deliver a middle-class tax cut, and the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994.

Ask Newt Gingrich, who pushed bills through the 104th Congress to cut taxes and reduce the deficit. But he also made entitlements a target, and Bill Clinton swept to a second term in 1996, with the GOP nearly losing control of the House in the process.

Three lessons taught; three lessons learned. The result is the bipartisan budget deal that cleared Congress in June. It cuts taxes, purportedly shaves $204 billion from the deficit over 5 years and essentially preserves entitlements.

It also squeezes all the juice out of the discretionary orange, leaving science to vie for the remaining pulp with veterans hospitals, highways, water projects, housing and urban development, military personnel, and so on and so on. Who ultimately picks the fruit clean depends upon who can produce the greatest political muscle.

Scientists are learning how to compete, but, as Science Committee Chairman Sensenbrenner noted, "One press conference [on the Joint Statement] isn't going to change things very much." It's the follow through that counts, and that depends upon every researcher and every educator. Like it or not, scientists and politicians are finding themselves joined at the hip.


©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin