APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

When scientists dare to speak out

By Michael S. Lubell
APS Director of Public Affairs


Science may not be the political poster child of 2003, but it isn't on anyone's enemies list either. It just isn't anyone's priority this year. Is it any wonder?

Even the most optimistic economic forecasters concede that the federal deficit will likely crack $400 billion. Gloom-and-doomers claim it could be as much as $600 billion. And that, as the late Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen would have said, "adds up to real money."

When programs compete for scarce resources, politicians do a quick calculation that has two variables. What are the most pressing needs for their district, state and nation, and what actions will most help them get elected?

Senator Pete V. Domenici (R-NM), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, is a perennial advocate for science. He's also one of the savviest readers of Hill politics I know. This is how he sized things up during a meeting in his office a few weeks ago.

For most members of Congress, this year's priority items are defense, homeland security, health, education, jobs, and enduring infrastructure items, such as highways, water projects, courthouses and prisons. If any money is left over, science could be a beneficiary. But with federal red ink flowing at historical highs this year, go find a spare nickel.

Domenici did have some advice for scientists: fight like hell—my words, not his, but the import is the same.

Without question, the battle will be incredibly tough, so it's fair to ask how successful scientists are when they lobby. Not long ago, D. Allan Bromley and I tried to answer the question by examining the changes in the funding landscape during the last decade, when scientists across disciplines first became engaged in the political process. Our analysis, to be published in Issues in Science and Technology (The National Academies and the University of Texas at Dallas, Summer 2003), reveals that the impact was dramatic.

The accompanying figure tells the story graphically. It shows a three-year running average of the percentage changes in the federal budgets for key science agencies, starting with Fiscal Year 1995 and ending with the Fiscal Year 2004 Presidential Request. Lobbying began in earnest in 1997, and until this year, it drove the percentages up in a compelling manner: it had an impact on budgeting.

Three-year running average of the percentage changes in the federal budgets for key science agencies, starting with Fiscal Year 1995 and ending with the Fiscal Year 2004 Presidential Request.
Three-year running average of the percentage changes in the federal budgets for key science agencies, starting with Fiscal Year 1995 and ending with the Fiscal Year 2004 Presidential Request.

But since September 11, 2001, defense spending has soared, federal revenues have skidded and deficits have reached historic proportions. On this new Washington landscape, is it possible for science to avoid the budget ax, even if the community speaks out strongly?

The arguments for federal funding are compelling: science drives technology, creates jobs, stimulates economic growth, saves lives, enables the military and defends the homeland. What more could any politician want!

But one key ingredient is missing. Science simply doesn't win elections. At least, that's the perception. The reality is that scientists and engineers could be a potent voting bloc—if they chose to be. With their families they constitute more than 10 million voters. That's enough to sway many elections.

Consider the Presidential results from 2000. In twelve states the margin of the victor was less than five percent. In six states it was one percent or less. In four states fewer than 6,000 votes separated George W. Bush and Al Gore; in two states, fewer than 600.

If scientists and engineers want to make science and engineering electoral priorities, they have it in their power to do so, if they dare.



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