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Endorsement of Senate NRIA-1998 Bill Culminates Year-Long Efforts By APS

In November, the APS Executive Board officially endorsed the bipartisan National Research Investment Act of 1998 (NRIA), a Senate bill (S.1305) that calls for a doubling of federal funding for basic scientific, medical and pre-competitive engineering research over the next decade. The bill was announced at a press conference in October, along with the release of a unified statement endorsed by the APS and 106 other scientific, engineering and math organizations (APS News, December 1997). Like the Senate Bill, the statement calls for a doubling of the federal budget for research by the year 2009, although the bill focuses specifically on increases in civilian research.

The event marks the culmination of a series of activities instigated by the APS Office of Public Affairs just over a year ago, with strong support from then-APS President D. Allan Bromley (Yale University), who had made federal support for science a priority of his presidential tenure. According to APS Director of Public Affairs Michael Lubell, in the fall of 1996, when the framework was being set for the FY1998 federal budget, the outlook for science was not good. The most optimistic scenario was a freeze at FY1997 funding levels, with more dire projections from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) predicting as much as a 5% cut in funding levels for many science and technology programs.

As word spread throughout the scientific community, two APS divisions in particular - nuclear and high energy physics - sent out a call for action to their members, who in turn began to flood the administration with letters encouraging continued strong federal support of science. This had some effect on the presidential budget request for FY1998 submitted to Congress in February 1997, which asked for small increases for science research, as high as 3% increase for some programs.

In the meantime, Bromley met with the presidents of several other professional societies - including the American Chemical Society (ACS), the American Mathematical Society (AMA), the American Astronomical Society (ASA), and the American Institute of Physics (AIP), among others - with an eye towards organizing a joint effort. The result was a Joint Society Statement released in March, calling for a 7% increase across the board for science funding in FY1998 (APS News, April and May 1997).

A key point of the joint statement was that the sciences are interdependent and therefore one had to view federal research investment comprehensively, not just individual disciplines. Furthermore, it maintained that investments in research are critical to a number of national needs, including economic growth, health, national security, and quality of life. "It was a first in terms of a real call for a comprehensive approach to science, and it asked for a specific number, instead of just the usual 'science is good' type of message," said Lubell.

Despite Bromley's appearance on CSPAN plugging the joint statement, along with ACS President Paul Anderson, initial response from Congress was mixed. Rep. George Brown (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the Science Committee and a long-time supporter of science, was sympathetic, but didn't think it could be done. Science Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) acknowledged the cause was worthy, but initially declined to endorse anything more than a flat budget for FY1998.

However, subsequent press coverage by National Public Radio, the Washington Post, the National Journal, Associated Press, Business Week, and U.S. News and World Report, as well as editorials on the importance of investment in science in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, kept the issue in the public eye. In addition, by the end of June the number of societies and organizations endorsing the Joint Statement had reached 48, representing a broad-based coalition of 1.5 million scientists, engineers and mathematicians. As budget hearings began in the Senate in May, Sensenbrenner eventually modified his position to accommodate the possibility of a 3% increase in science funding.

Encouraged by the response, the member societies of the joint coalition divided the eight weeks from May 1 to the end of June, which is the key time when appropriations bills are crafted, and took turns alerting their memberships to write letters to Congress. "It was like passing a baton from one society to the next," said Francis Slakey, Assistant Director of APS Public Affairs, of this unique approach. "By staggering the letter-writing campaigns, we made sure that the message of the importance of increasing federal funding for science was pounded out week after week."

As another first, several societies contributed funds to place an ad making the case for science in the June 16th issue of Roll Call. The biweekly publication covers the activities of Congress and parts of the Administration, and is one of the most widely read publications on Capitol Hill. In addition, the Office of Public Affairs approached the mayors of several cities in the districts of key appropriators, persuading about 20 of them to endorse a letter detailing the importance of investment in science to the future of America's cities.

Several society presidents also paid personal visits to key Congressional offices to emphasize the need for the government to look seriously at investing in research. And during the Joint APS/AAPT Spring Meeting in April, the APS Divisions of Laser Science and Atomic, Molecular and Optical physics, in conjunction with Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), organized a reception on the Hill featuring 12 hands-on science demonstrations. "I think many members of Congress had thought about science primarily as esoteric scratchings on a blackboard," said Slakey of the demos' effectiveness in communicating the message of the benefits of science. "For the first time they were seeing things that grew out of science that were part of their experience, so there was some real contact between science and their daily lives. It wasn't just lecture mode."

This flurry of lobbying activity by the scientific community ultimately yielded impressive results, especially when considered in light of the dire forecasts of 5% cuts being cited one year ago. According to Lubell, while the FY1998 budget doesn't grant a 7% increase for science funding across the board, there are substantial increases for most science and technology programs averaging between 5% and 8%. For example, DOE's basic energy sciences went up 8.6%, the plasma and fusion budget went up 5%, the NIH received a 7.1% increase, the core programs of NIST went up 5.5%, and the NSF budget rose nearly 6%.

The coalition also expended considerable effort to help foster cooperation between Senators Phil Gramm (R-TX) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) on the development of the new bipartisan NRIA, which makes science a national funding priority. Pete Domenici (R-NM), the chair of the Budget Committee, also threw his support behind the bill, as did Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). In fact, Domenici vowed to make the bill a priority. While there is currently no equivalent bill in the House, Brown is offering an investment budget outlining Democratic priorities for discretionary spending in general that would increase scientific R&D by 5% a year, which is not incompatible with the goal of doubling research in ten years. "I think Brown deserves credit for keeping the flame burning in the House while all this other effort was taking place in the Senate," said Lubell.

Other societies are expected to follow the APS' example in officially endorsing the NRIA. Gramm and Lieberman are confident they can round up the 51 co-sponsors needed to ensure passage in the Senate, but they will need the grass-roots lobbying support of the expanded joint coalition representing 3 million mathematicians, engineers and scientists from 106 societies. Thus, the coalition's work is far from over. "Without the confidence that the scientific community is really behind this, this kind of legislation has a way of being tabled," said Lubell.

Among the lessons learned from the past year's activities is that by working together to send a compelling, unified message, scientists can have a much greater impact on science policy than by working individually. Also, the experience proved that members of Congress do listen to scientists and would like to hear from them. "They interpret silence as an indication that there's no problem, or that scientists don't consider their work to be relevant enough for the government to pay attention to it," said Lubell. "If you just expect somebody else to carry the message forward into Congress, it's not going to have any effect."

APS members interested in more information, or participating in current and future efforts on behalf of science funding, should contact Michael Lubell: lubell@aps.org or Francis Slakey: slakey@aps.org or at the APS Office of Public Affairs, 202-662- 8700. The full text of both the Joint Society Statement and the Unified Statement can be found on the APS Web page

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin