APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Leaders of Industry Fall From Political Grace

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

The "golden parachute" and the "poison pill" are taking on new meanings. Once identified with the financial machinery designed to protect the interests of corporate executives, the terms are singularly germane to the politics of the here and now.

Democrats hope to use corporate abuse as the "golden parachute" that will take them to victory in November. And Republicans recognize that continuing to cozy up to corporate America is the "poison pill" that could make the Democrats' dreams come true. The message to the titans of industry: "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Remember the time when GE, Xerox, and Lucent-Bell Laboratories were kings of the technology mountain? They were the fount of scientific discovery, the trailblazers of innovation and the engines of the American economy. Breathing their names opened doors to the corridors of power. No more.

They lost their luster as the Edens of basic research years ago. Now their fall from scientific grace has a new partner: an ignominious fall from political grace.

Along with Enron, Worldcom, Halliburton, Quest, Tyco, and Adelphia, these bastions of the American economy have been more than tainted by allegations of executive malfeasance and misfeasance. So strong is the belief that their corporate leaders raped and pillaged investors and employees, alike, that no politician of sane mind will entertain for even one minute the thought of sitting at a table with any of them-at least for now. And since no one can predict which megacorp will next come a cropper, CEO's as a species are on the venomous list, so far as public office-holders are concerned.

But memories are short. It wasn't too long ago that academia was struggling to rebuild its image. As the decade of the 1990's opened, Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University, stood accused of paying for a university yacht with federal research dollars. And in 1994, Nobelist David Baltimore, former President of Rockefeller University, was forced to resign his post under the cloud of alleged falsified research that he had published with MIT collaborator Thereza Imanishi-Kari.

Back then, if you were an academic scientist, you often had a fair bit of explaining to do before Washington officialdom welcomed you in. Three years ago, the national laboratories also took a hit, following the indictment of Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee on charges of espionage. So it's no surprise that industrial leaders had the ear of the White House throughout the 1990's when it came to matters of science and technology.

Today, the tables are turned. Policy makers increasingly are viewing the universities and the national laboratories as crucial players in the war on terrorism. Add to this their role in fighting disease, promoting economic growth and training the 21st century workforce, and you have a case that officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue find compelling. This year's congressional action underscores just how compelling the case is.

Assisted by a member of the science community, congressional advocates moved the National Science Foundation doubling bill through the House of Representatives in June. The bill, H.R. 4664, cleared the House by an overwhelming margin of 397 to 25. And President Bush is expected to sign the legislation into law following Senate action. (It certainly didn't hurt that APS members sent more than 4,000 letters to the Hill while the bill was pending.)

Similar legislation for the DOE Office of Science is still under consideration, but the outcome is less certain. It is tied up by the comprehensive energy bill, H.R. 4, that contains several controversial provisions, among them oil drilling in Alaska and electricity regulations upon which House and Senate conferees have strong differences.

It's not clear whether the political parties will want to enter the November elections bashing each other over the failure to pass an energy bill or whether they will see it in their self interest to excise the controversial portions and claim joint victory on the rest. But it's clear that industry's ability to influence the outcome is diminishing with every revelation of corporate abuse.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette