APS News

Inside the Beltway: Sailing Against the Tide?

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Scratch the skin of a Washington pundit and more often than not you are likely to find a nay sayer. It's not a predisposition. It's just the nature of the business. It's also the nature of the federal government.

Propose anything new, and you'll quickly find yourself sailing against the tide. Like a vintage ocean liner, the government doesn't change direction easily, and when it does, it is not apt to reverse course anytime soon. That's particularly true today when it comes to federal spending.

By the beginning of Fiscal Year 1997, almost all publicly supported research had taken four straight years of budgetary hits. And as a fraction of the gross domestic product, the federal investment in research had fallen to less than half of its 1960s peak.

For science and engineering, particularly, the storm clouds of deficit reduction seemed to be looming large. Policy makers and bean counters had become all too comfortable squeezing the breath out of the research endeavor. Not one of them would promise anything better than hard freeze in current dollars for Fiscal Year 1998. That translated into a forecast for a fifth consecutive year of cuts.

In the White House and on Capitol Hill, science lobbyists were advised to take yet another deep breath. The message was succinct: Scientists and engineers must learn to be grateful for whatever the federal government doled out. Whiners need not apply at all. After all, other discretionary domestic programs were being pared back even more. Scientists had long believed that their work contributed to societal good. But for decades they had failed to tell their story to the public. As a result, politicians and policy makers simply viewed science as one more hungry mouth feeding at the federal trough. To get them to change course meant dispelling that notion.

To be fair, not everyone in government labored under the belief that federal support of science was an expense with no tangible return. Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., former chairman of the House Science Committee and now its ranking member, had argued for some time that science dollars rightfully should be placed on the investment side of the ledger. But his argument had lost much of its impact, because, as many of his colleagues were quick to point out, the Clinton Administration was now using the same claim to advance much of its spending agenda - in some cases appropriately and in others not.

Still, Rep. Brown continued to press his case in the House. And in the Senate, as the 105th Congress convened, Phil Gramm, R-Texas, relying on much the same logic, offered a resolution to double the federal civilian research budget over 10 years. Even though Brown and Gramm attracted a few early supporters, advocates of science investments remained a dangerously small minority.

Two major arguments aided their cause. It had long been known that technology was a significant driver of American economic growth. But just how significant was rarely cited. Using statistics developed by economists such as Edwin Mansfield and Michael Boskin, investment advocates could claim with little risk that more than half of the nation's economic growth since the end of World War II could be traced to technological development that had science as its underpinning.

Even more significantly, a new study carried out for the NSF by CHI Research, Inc., an international consulting firm, concluded that 73 percent of the papers cited by American industrial patents in recent years were based on publicly supported research. The implications were clear. All that remained was driving the message home.

To do that, the leaders of 46 professional societies united behind the Joint Statement on Science Research, which argued that federal research budgets should rise by 7 percent in FY 1998. With more than 1.5 million scientists, engineers and mathematicians behind it, "The Seven Percent Solution" - as it had become known - made its mark. The hard freeze, which policy makers only months earlier had held out as the best that could be expected, was replaced with real gains, a number of them approaching the 7 percent figure.

The science community had weighed in with cogent and compelling arguments and had carried the day. But ominously, the budget accord reached before Congress went into its summer recess, now promises even more difficult days ahead. Should the out-year projections be realized, science investments will decline by 15 percent or more over the next five years.

Of course, budgetary forecasts are notoriously unreliable, as any pundit will tell you. Right now, the science investment lobby has the current on its side. But the waters are choppy and the winds, variable. Scientists would be wise to follow the advice of the savvy sailor: Keep a watchful eye on the tell tails, a firm arm on the tiller and ready hands on the main sheet. Otherwise, they will find themselves sailing against the tide once more.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin