APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Physics in the Battleground

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

If you're anything like me and noticed the words physics and battleground juxtaposed in the same headline, you'd probably picture laser guided weapons, night goggles, stealth fighters or myriad other military hardware that trace their space age technologies to the basic research laboratory. And ordinarily, you'd have gotten it right.

But this time the context is markedly different. The battleground will be strewn with bodies only in the figurative sense. It is the field of conflict where the 2004 presidential election will be won or lost.

Regrettably, most of us will only be spectators. Live in California, Massachusetts or New York? The Bush campaign has written you off. Live in Texas, Oklahoma or Alabama? The Kerry campaign has long forgotten you even exist.

But if you reside in the ten battleground states, where neither candidate is a clear favorite, you will be deluged with TV ads, push polls, billboards and door-to-door canvassers from now until Election Day. By November 2, you will be numb. Pulling the voting lever, punching the chad or tapping the video screen will be like arriving in paradise after four months in hell.

So which are the top battleground states? Florida (of course), Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Remarkably, in all but one (West Virginia), the high-tech work force is larger than the 2000 presidential vote differential. In five of the ten—Florida, Iowa, Oregon, New Mexico and Wisconsin—the number of high-tech workers exceeds the 2000 margin by more than ten to one! If either campaign ignores these voters, it would be making a big mistake.

It's rare that the political newsletter CQ Weekly even mentions the word science outside the context of health. Yet, on July 3, CQ Weekly saw fit, not only to write about science, but to make it the cover story.

While the seven-page dissection of the issue put a spotlight on the importance of science, it did contain several disquieting thoughts, such as the one captured by the blurb on the front cover: "Basic Research is the key to finding the 'next big thing,' but few lawmakers see an immediate payoff for programs that offer knowledge for its own sake."

Amol Sharma and Stephen J. Norton, the authors of the piece, observed, "There is, indeed, bipartisan concern that the United States might lose its competitive edge at some point [due to lackluster funding of basic research] but broad disagreement about what to do."

And to underscore the difficulty Congress constantly faces in dealing with the science issue, they concluded with this quote from Sen. Robert F. Bennet (R-UT): "It's one of those problems you don't have to solve this year and you don't have to solve next year, but some year you're going to wake up and say, 'Hey, I can't reclaim that lost time.'"

Well, 2004 may prove to be the year of a political rude awakening for either party, if it ignores the importance of science.

The policy issue is simple: While the US dithers, China and India are offering high-tech companies a pool of low-cost, highly talented researchers, an impetus that ultimately could drain away our nation's most potent competitive advantage: leadership in discovery and innovation.

The political fallout is equally simple: facing the threat of further job losses, a disgruntled high tech work force could swing the 2004 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush or John F. Kerry, should either fail to address the science issue, especially in the battleground states.

Will scientists and engineers vote their pocketbook? It's hard to say, but I wouldn't want to be the campaign advisor who counsels against paying close attention to the hightech constituency in a year when a few votes in a few key states could well determine the occupant of the White House for the next four years.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette