APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Cornpone and Southern Comfort

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Getting out of Washington is one thing; getting away from Washington, something else. Atlanta injected hospitality into the political rhetoric during the APS Centennial, but it couldn't mask the fault lines entirely.

No surprise there, you say. Put a Democrat and a Republican on the same platform, and there's bound to be some quaking. But, in the case of Atlanta, you'd be wrong.

At the Centennial Symposium, Science Policy for the New Millennium, sponsored by the Forum on Physics and Society, it wasn't Representatives Vern Ehlers (R-MI) or Rush Holt (D-NJ) who rattled any cages. It was Defense Research and Engineering Director Hans Mark, the chief technology advisor to the Secretary of Defense.

A former Secretary of the Air Force from 1979 to 1981 and later Chancellor of the University of Texas System, Mark holds a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He holds four honorary degrees and a host of medals for public service and scientific achievement. He is, in short, well credentialed, a person who commands your attention.

He didn't disappoint. For openers, he challenged the very premise of the symposium. Is he right? You be the judge.

When the Berlin Wall came crashing down a decade ago, Beltway science advocates began to search for rationales to replace national defense as the umbrella for Federal investments in research. Biology found disease and everyone else found the economy.

Mark, though, says that defense is still the 800 pound gorilla, accounting for just over 53 percent of Federal R&D outlays in Fiscal Year 1999, almost exactly what it was thirty years ago. Moreover, he notes, in 1949, outlays for defense R&D amounted to 0.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Today, it is 0.4 percent. To discern policy, he says, follow the money trail. It goes to the same place it did a quarter or a half century ago.

Perhaps he was too kind to say so, or perhaps he simply had not read Vern Ehlers's report, Unlocking Our Future, which the House of Representatives endorsed last fall. But Mark was making a frontal assault on that document. Here's what Ehlers and the House Science Committee had said:

"The end of the Cold War had a profound impact on the Nation's research and development enterprise, and brought with it the end of the second mega-era of science policy. Without the backdrop of the Soviet military threat or the race to conquer space, convincing and often-used justifications for federal research funding became less compelling."

It might have been Southern air or just his naturally non-confrontational manner, but Ehlers opted not to fight. He, Holt or National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell, the fourth panelist, could have pointed out that today, defense accounts for only a quarter of Federally funded research - development dominates defense R&D - while in 1949, it accounted for almost all of it. But none of them did. Nor did any of them point out that Federal R&D outlays now account for only 0.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, compared to 2.2 percent near the peak of the defense build-up in Fiscal Year 1964 and 1.1 percent just a decade ago.

Mark also staked out his own patch of controversial territory on missile defense. Responding to a query from the audience, he said, "[There is] no question that we can build a national missile defense system designed to protect the continental United States against attack.... By definition, this is feasible, and it can be built." Right or wrong, you could almost hear dropping jaws hit the floor.

Only a few days earlier, Ehlers and Holt, the only two physicists in Congress, had voted against the House National Missile Defense bill on the grounds that technological and scientific feasibility of the system remains largely unproven. Holt had put it succinctly in the floor debate: "Wishing won't overrule physics."

But if Mark, whose assertion represents the strongest position yet articulated by a senior member of the Clinton Administration, was looking for a fight, Holt and Ehlers refused to rise to the occasion. Would they have, had the Washington media been prowling around, as they do inside the Beltway? Perhaps it was just Atlanta etiquette: cornpone and Southern comfort.



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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette