APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Science on the Threshold of Political Success

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Coalition Efforts Spell Good News for Science

When the White House unveiled its proposed budget for FY2001 in February, the news was mostly good for science. Although the Presidential budget is up a mere 1.5%, basic science research is up by 7% overall, with significantly higher percentages for selected programs. For example, the National Science Foundation budget request is up 17.3% to $4.6 billion, with research funding up 19.7%, thanks to major initiatives in information technology, nanotechnology, and biocomplexity. The Department of Energy's basic science programs are up 13%, including funding for the Spallation Neutron Source. NASA's budget is up 6% overall, with space science up 9.4%.

That 7% increase is not an arbitrary happenstance. It is largely due to the culmination of a three-year effort by a joint coalition of scientific societies, including the APS, and the participation of APS members in letter-writing campaigns and Congressional visits through the Physics and Government Network (PGNet). Spearheaded by then-APS President Allan Bromley and the APS Washington Office, the coalition was founded in 1997 in response to predictions of a potential 5% cut in funding levels for many science and technology programs in FY1998. The result was a joint statement to Congress signed by over 100 scientific societies calling for a doubling of the federal budget for research by 2009 - roughly 7% each year, inspiring the catch phrase "the Seven Percent Solution." [see APS News, January 1998, p. 6] When the dust had settled, Congress had approved substantial increases in FY1998 for most science and technology programs of between 5% and 8%, instead of the expected 5% cut.

Encouraged by this success, the coalition has since grown to more than 150 member organizations, and its joint lobbying efforts on behalf of science clearly continue to yield positive concrete results on the Hill. The message is clear, says Michael Lubell, APS director of public affairs: When scientists speak out with a unified voice, Congress listens. Yet despite these gains, he insists, the voices of scientists are needed more than ever as Congress gears up for the final budget appropriations battle this fall.

A presidential election is a Washington pundit's worst nightmare. It doesn't muzzle a true talking head: nothing will. But the quadrennial political saber dance, the essence of American democracy, sucks the wind out of the sails of the best of them.

In the off-years, when the spotlight is on Washington, pundits pontificate profusely. And inside the corridors of power, politicians pay homage. But ratchet up presidential campaigns, and it's what happens outside the Beltway that counts. In the crudest terms, the most savvy Washington analyst is reduced to bystander status.

Still, for science, the rhetoric inside the Beltway always counts big time, election-year or no. And as 2000 began, science burst onto the Washington scene with unexpected fanfare.

After seven years of hand-wringing over budget cuts, deficits and caps, the Clinton Administration rolled out a Fiscal Year 2001 budget request that puts science plus-ups center stage. Prosperity and surpluses do wonders for resolve, especially when the likes of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew become staunch advocates.

Before he even delivered up his budget, President Clinton was on the road at Cal Tech beating the science drum. And he continued to thump the theme in his State of the Union Address.

When the budget books reached Capitol Hill, Republicans predictably reacted by stamping them, "Dead on Arrival!" That was part politics and part reality-check.

But the science portfolio, for obvious reasons, drew an additional chorus of GOP shouts: "We were there first!" Everyone likes a winner, and this year, science can be just that.

The Clinton Administration used February's additional leap-year day to run a meeting in the Roosevelt Room. That in itself is not unusual. White House honchos often convene there to plot strategy and debate issues of great moment.

But science was the only item on the agenda of the hour-long meeting. And the conveners were White House heavy weights: Chief of Staff Podesta, Presidential Science Advisor Neal Lane, Vice Presidential Chief Domestic Policy Advisor David Beier, National Economic Council Special Presidential Assistant Thomas Kalil and Deputy Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Charles Brain.

The freewheeling discussion, involving about twenty-five representatives of science, engineering and industrial organizations, focused on four recurrent themes - the economic impact of science and technology, the interdependence of the sciences, the need for a balanced federal research portfolio and the importance of a sustained program of investment. These, you may recall, have been the mantra of the science community for the last three years.

For now, optimism abounds, but the road to the final budget, as Washington insiders know, is fraught with hazards. The Senate and House Budget Committees have barely begun their work on the Budget Resolution, and warning signs are already up. Reliable sources report that Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici's (R-NM) preliminary mark-up falls below the presidential level, although White House analysts believe that the two sides will be able to bridge the gap. But real trouble lies in the House, where retiring Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) has vowed that he will make an extraordinarily tight-fisted spending line his parting shot.

So large is the reported difference between the House and Senate resolutions, that many observers believe that the two chambers, once again, will fail to come to a mutually acceptable agreement. That would set the stage for another last-minute round of appropriations bargaining in early fall.

But Republican leaders pledge that they will not give President Clinton yet one more opportunity to beat them up in omnibus budget talks, as he has done for two years running. They also swear that they will close up shop by October 1. If they really stick to that schedule, budget work must begin early and move with unusual speed.

This election year, as members of Congress struggle to find bipartisan themes that demonstrate a can-do ethic, science has the potential to become a rallying point. But only if the science community reacts swiftly. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich laid out the challenge last December, when he wrote in The Boston Globe, "The fate of our country may well depend on whether or not scientists recognize that they have responsibilities as citizens. The fact is no one else is as qualified to make the case for increased funding in science research and reform of science education."

Editor's Note: The complete text of Gingrich's article was reprinted in the March 2000 APS News.

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: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette