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Inside the Beltway

The President Delivers Big Time for Science and Engineering

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Can a leopard change its spots? Never in the kingdom of the wild, but in the realm of politics, it happens every day.

Take the case of Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO). He was first elected to the Senate from Colorado as a Democrat in 1992. But in 1995, he became a Republican after Colorado voters began to tilt heavily toward the GOP agenda.

Then there's Connecticut Governor John Rowland, who served three terms as a pro-life member of Congress before making the run as a pro-choice candidate for the top job in the Nutmeg state. His honestly stated reason for the conversion: You can't win statewide office in Connecticut if you're pro life.

So last month when President Bill Clinton unveiled a budget that featured large increases for science and engineering, he joined a long list of politicians who are eventually swayed by public opinion.

According to Administration sources, the coalition of society leaders representing more than 3.5 million scientists, engineers and mathematicians did not go unnoticed by the White House. Nor did the bipartisan National Research Investment Act of 1998, submitted last October by Senators Gramm (R-TX), Lieberman (D-CT), Domenici (R-NM) and Bingaman (D-NM).

Of course it didn't hurt to have the support of the average voter either. Two years ago, the Roper survey organization asked Americans what they thought about science. Four out five respondents said that it inspired hope, satisfaction, wonder or excitement.

And then there were the undisputed facts that science and technology are the prime drivers of the economy, research is the underpinning of progress in medicine, and proficiency in high technology is the basis of our national security.

No doubt, Presidential Science Advisor John H. Gibbons, long a supporter of federal investments in research, used all the arrows in his quiver to make his case, including the many letters received by the White House in December from scientists of all stripes. And this year, unlike previous ones, Gibbons succeeded beyond all expectations.

President Clinton, who less than a year ago had been rebuked by Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. (D-CA)-former Chairman and now Ranking Democratic Member of the House Science Committee-for not making R&D a priority investment, delivered a blockbuster of a science budget. The numbers speak for themselves: NASA Space Science up 4%, NIST STRS (Core Programs) up 5.3%, DOD Basic Research (6.1 Program) up 6.6%, NIH up 8%, NSF up 10% and DOE Energy Research up 10%.

Just a week earlier, in his State of the Union Address, the President had provided a preview of his budget intentions. Although he had saved it for the end, he gave science a huge boost, just as White House insiders had promised. "Tonight," he said, "as part of our gift to the millennium, I propose a 21st Century Research Fund for path-breaking scientific inquiry-the largest funding increase in history for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the National Cancer Institute."

His seventy-two minute speech to Congress and the nation was punctuated by applause 102 times. Often, the response was partisan, but the science reference brought an ovation from both sides of the aisle.

However, first impressions often can be deceiving. As congenial and congratulatory as the President and Congress may be right now about science and engineering investments, they will have their mettle tested in the coming months.

The President's proposed budget contains more than $100 billion of spending on new programs over the next five years. It also assumes $65 billion in increased revenues from tobacco taxes. And his State of the Union Message stakes out a position that would commit any other federal revenues that exceed the projections of last year's balanced budget agreement to ensuring the future solvency of the Social Security System.

Republicans have staked out their own ground. They maintain that the government's priorities should be cutting taxes and paying down the national debt. They also say that a deal on tobacco taxes will likely founder this year. And any spending that exceeds last year's agreed upon budget caps is out of the question, whether or not the budget for the upcoming year is in the black. They're still high on research, but say, "Show me the money!"

So while the winds of science are blowing sweetly for the moment, they may turn into a gale within the coming months. Here are some of the possible scenarios.

  • There is no tobacco settlement, and the Republicans stick to their guns on taxes and the debt. But they embrace the science issue, and cut other programs to make room for the President's 21st Century Research Fund. The President swallows hard and accepts the other cuts.
  • There is no tobacco settlement, and the Republicans forego tax cuts and paying down the debt. They support increases for science.
  • There is no tobacco settlement and the Republicans strike a deal with the President: they get some tax cuts but he has to accept trimming some programs, science included.
  • There is a tobacco settlement and everyone goes home well satisfied. The Republicans get tax cuts, and the President gets Social Security relief. For next year the national debt stays where it is, and science gets a big boost.
If you believe that the last scenario is in the cards, encourage all your smoking friends to light up early and light up often. Their habit may kill them, but it could save science. If you have more compassion, tell them to quit but put in a good word for science with their elected representatives.

February 5, 1998
Dear Mr. President:
I want to commend you for identifying science and technology as priority investments of the federal government for the next millennium. The 21st Century Research Fund, which you highlighted in your State of the Union Address and featured in your Budget Request, not only provides well justified financial resources for science and engineering research, but also focuses attention on two key policy issues: long-term planning and the interconnectedness of the sciences. I applaud your wisdom in recognizing these essential elements and in recommending to Congress a balanced budget that strongly supports investments in research and education.

America's physics community has always stood ready to help our country achieve its goals: from energy to the environment; from medicine to space; from defense to education; from materials to information technologies. With 41,000 members, the American Physical Society is the world's largest organization of phyisicists. On their behalf, I offer you my assistance in realizing the science goals you have identified this week.

As a first step, our Society looks forward to working with your Administration and with members of Congress in both political parties to translate your visions into relevant appropriations. In this way we can secure our nation's vital science and technology future.

Very truly yours,
Andrew M. Sessler


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin