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Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Science in the Aftermath

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs 
Michael S. Lubell
Michael S. Lubell

How would the outlook for American science be altered if voters had chosen differently? If you believe the published answers to questions posed to both candidates by Physics Today, Science, and Nature, probably not much—with a few notable exceptions: stem cell research and the Moon-Mars Program. Kerry made Bush's opposition to the first a centerpiece of his campaign, and he pledged not to pursue the second, which he said had "no clear objectives or cost estimates."

But even here, the differences were starting to narrow in the run-up to November 2nd. With public support for stem cell research deep and widespread, Republican insiders predicted privately—a few months before the election-that Bush's opposition would have to soften. As for Moon-Mars, early in the summer Congress had already begun to balk at the apparent mega price tag, and by September the Administration's own Office of Management and Budget was also beginning to question whether the program was at all realistic, given the river of federal red ink.

On other issues—missile defense, climate change, energy policy and support for science research and education—you would have been hard pressed to find more than a nuanced difference. Whether either campaign was being honest is quite another matter. When needed, skilled spinmeisters—and both sideshad plenty of them—can carefully craft wording that masks the true positions of a candidate.

So Bush was an advocate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Kerry was a supporter of missile defense. Bush's handlers also said that he opposed developing new nuclear weapons, in spite of well- known White House pressure on congressional appropriators to fund development of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. And Kerry's spokesmen said that their candidate supported nuclear power, although his track record on the issue might have suggested otherwise.

Looking ahead, each candidate agreed that funding for the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering had shriveled as the NIH budget thrived. They agreed that more spending was needed.

But between Iraq, the war on terrorism and tax cuts, the Bush folks said the cupboard was bare. And with Kerry committed to spending more money on homeland security, expanding health care coverage, enlarging the army and keeping Social Security reform off the national agenda, even his staunchest supporters couldn't make the numbers work. Rolling back the tax breaks for the wealthy wouldn't provide enough revenue to cover all the expenditures.

In the first two years of his presidency, Bush portrayed himself as the great reformer: on taxes, on trade, on prescription drugs, on regulations, on education, on global projection of American interests. You might not have liked them or agreed with them, but they represented significant reforms of American policy. Kerry, by contrast, throughout his Senate service was more wedded to the status quo, acting more like a "New Deal" or "Great Society" Democrat" than a Clintonian "New Democrat."

Morton Kondracke, for whom I have great admiration as a political analyst—and, incidentally, as a staunch supporter of science—had this to say in his September 27 Roll Call column, as he pondered his choices on November 2nd, "So whom to vote for? A would-be reformer who can't pay, or a willing payer who can't reform? It's a hard one." Time will tell in the next few years if we chose wisely.

About the only prediction that I will make is that the federal budget will remain a mess for quite some time. The increasing demands on scant federal resources will cause Congress to miss budgetary deadlines more often than not. (This year, we could well be stuck with a Continuing Resolution through February.) And it will tie policy making up into such knots that it could turn the "do-nothing" 108th Congress into a fashion trendsetter.

If I had a solution, I would have run for the White House this year. After all, if Ralph Nader had the chutzpah to do it, why shouldn't I?

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette