APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Chairman of the Board

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Come August, throngs of Texans leave the Lone Star State to escape the blistering heat of the dusty plains. Not so with President Bush, who traded Washington's summer torpor for triple- digit temperatures on his Crawford spread.

But while Dubya was refreshing his mind and spirit in a most improbable fashion, some of his operatives remained at their DC desks developing a plan to squeeze better performance out of the federal research portfolio. What they seemingly hatched is an industrial model that focuses principally on short-term performance. Here's what's behind their thinking.

Where most policy analysts see America's R&D enterprise as the best engine of economic productivity ever designed, this Administration's play makers see failure. The kernel of their view appears in a report released by the Office of Management and Budget in late August. "We can rarely show what our R&D investments have produced, and we do not link information about performance to our decisions about funding," it complains.

I guess they think that someone waved a wand and bioinfomatics, genomics, information technology, lasers, materials, MRI and the Web magically appeared. Either the assertion reflects ignorance, or it contains a hidden message. Judge for yourself.

The President's Management Agenda, the OMB says, "reflects the Administration's commitment to achieve immediate, concrete, and measurable results in the near term." The message: Forget how we got here, or where we will be in ten years time. As with industrial labs, next quarter's corporate bottom line is all that matters.

The Department of Energy, everyone's whipping boy, will be the guinea pig for the new budgeting model. For applied research and development programs, DOE and OMB will use performance metrics that are designed to increase "expected efficiency" by no less than 10 percent. And DOE's efficiency, OMB notes, will be measured by how much a program can be expected to increase oil production, reduce consumption or cut pollution.

Any proposed new program will have to guarantee that it will perform in the top 25 percent of the existing programs. Implicit in this directive is that much of the current applied research portfolio isn't worth a dime of taxpayer's money. OK, maybe a dime, but not a dollar.

The report also takes a subdued swipe at the way DOE manages its basic research portfolio. Those programs, OMB notes, will be targeted at "improving the quality and relevance of their research." Although publicly the report is silent on how quality and relevance will be determined, privately DOE acknowledges that its science portfolio in the aggregate will be judged by how much it is expected to contribute to economic growth over the next three years.

Three years, in case you have forgotten, is when the next presidential election takes place. Call me a cynic.

If the OMB report truly captures White House thinking about R&D, the Fiscal Year 2002 budget end-game this season will be a tough one for science. Don't expect the Chairman of the Board, who sits in the Oval Office, to come to its rescue.

Several months ago, I forecast that the science budget would be squeezed this fall, largely by the $1.35 trillion tax cut and White House demands for major increases in defense spending. The economic slowdown has now made the squeeze a reality.

Here's how the budgetary landscape shapes up. The Republicans, who control the House and the White House, want to spend $35 billion dollars more on defense. The Democrats, who control the Senate, want more money for education, transportation, the environment and a variety of other popular social programs. Both political parties hew to the same total spending, because they swore that they wouldn't raid the "Social Security lock box," and that's all that's left of the surplus.

Both parties are in a bind. The Democrats can press their advantage in the Senate, but they don't have the votes to override a presidential veto, neither there nor certainly in the House. The President can call on Congress to deliver the defense spending bill to him before any others, as he already has, but Senate Democrats, who control the sequence of appropriations bills, can refuse to comply, as they already have sworn they would not.

The outcome could be a stalemate with a year-long continuing resolution for many programs, which would keep spending at or below current-year levels. The two parties could also duke it out in the media for much of the coming year, hoping to get an early boost for the 2002 congressional election in the process.

There is a third possibility. They could strike a deal to increase defense spending significantly - but not by the full $35 billion - and add serious money to education and social programs - but not as much as the Democrats want, squeezing everything else in sight.

None of these scenarios bodes particularly well for science. It is doubtful that the numbers will rise much above the average of the House and Senate appropriations bills. And there's a good chance they won't make it that far.

And with a Chairman of the Board using his MBA training to orchestrate future White House budget policy, science may have to learn to live with a quarterly earnings mentality or suffer meager offerings for the next few years if it doesn't.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette