APS News

Inside the Beltway: Don't Give Me No Bad News!

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

You don’t have to be a soldier in Iraq to know that the world is filled with mines. And not all of them are improvised explosive devices, concealed and instantly lethal. No, the ones I have in mind are visible, and they pack a delayed charge, one that can cripple America the mighty.

You have to have your eyes shut, your ears plugged or your entire head in the sand not to know they’re there. But that’s just about how the White House has behaved for the last five years when it comes to the high tech challenges our country is facing from abroad.

Call it arrogance or ignorance, but, until recently, the West Wingers just didn’t get the idea that “Science and Technology” is not an American protectorate. They’ve been so focused on their rosy optimism they haven’t seen the mines ahead or the enemies behind. For them, “It’s morning in America!” is more than a Reagan campaign slogan–it’s the reality. Would that it were true.

Yes, we lead the world in entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. We have the strongest banking system, the best protection of intellectual property rights and the greatest graduate institutions. But we also have one of the poorest performance records in elementary and secondary science education and, for the last twenty years, a shrinking federal commitment to physical science research. Without the fount of discoveries that basic research produces, American innovation soon will be just a chapter in American history books.

Don’t get me wrong: we haven’t quite lost the battle. But just because we haven’t fallen flat on our faces yet, doesn’t mean we aren’t about to get our bottoms booted. Check out the R&D benchmarks of the United States and of our competitors. They’re more than a little scary, at least if you worry about your children’s future.

Sadly that message hasn’t yet resonated with the macho culture of the current administration. It’s one thing if the messengers were only liberal academics who still sport “Kerry for President” bumper stickers on their Volvos. But when they are some of the titans of corporate America–the likes of Norm Augustine, retired Chairman and CEO of Lockheed-Martin; Craig Barrett, Chairman of the Board of Intel; Ron Sugar, CEO of Northrup-Grumman; Lee Raymond, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Exxon Mobil–you’d think the President would instantly pick up the phone and invite them in. He might have wanted to, but for the better part of a year his gatekeepers didn’t.

Finally, in December, heavy hitters in the Administration–only one notch below the President and including his closest advisors –opened their doors. They might not have liked what they heard, but they listened. Give them credit for that. Time will tell whether they will give their boss the bad news and begin to correct two decades of “bipartisan lack of vision,” as Burton Richter, Nobel Laureate and former SLAC Director, is fond of describing the budgetary shambles.

It will require more than a robust presidential research budget request or an Energy Secretary who has made science his number one priority, with at least some of the dollars to back up his rhetoric. It will require presidential fortitude and jawboning. The reason is plain.

Conservatives in Congress will press hard for more tax cuts and reductions in spending. And unless the Administration makes science and competitiveness a central theme for Fiscal Year 2007, the coming months will seem like an agonizing slo-mo replay of the Fiscal Year 2006 disaster, when appropriators, usually sympathetic to science, fumed that they had finally had their fill of trying to clean up the mess the White House was continuing to create.

Add to this the dynamics of a hard-fought election year, in which partisan politics will play a dominant role, and science could vanish from the agenda of both parties, unless advocates weigh in heavily.

One third of the Senate seats and all of the House seats are up for grabs. And Democrats, savoring the allegations of illegal, unethical or simply improper behavior that have racked the Republican leadership, sense the possibility of reclaiming control of Congress in November. Without a doubt, nastiness and negativism will dominate the campaign.

But as the public inevitably tires of partisan bashing, a window of opportunity will open for science: it could become a compelling issue that both sides feature as a positive counterpart to the dark sides of their campaigns. If that happens, the nation would benefit enormously. The House Democrats have embraced the innovation theme. It’s time for the Republicans to take up the challenge. It wouldn’t hurt for them to hear from some of their constituents, and the sooner the better.

You don’t have to be a soldier in Iraq to know that the world is filled with mines. And not all of them are improvised explosive devices, concealed and instantly lethal. No, the ones I have in mind are visible, and they pack a delayed charge, one that can cripple America the mighty.

You have to have your eyes shut, your ears plugged or your entire head in the sand not to know they’re there. But that’s just about how the White House has behaved for the last five years when it comes to the high tech challenges our country is facing from abroad.

Call it arrogance or ignorance, but, until recently, the West Wingers just didn’t get the idea that “Science and Technology” is not an American protectorate. They’ve been so focused on their rosy optimism they haven’t seen the mines ahead or the enemies behind. For them, “It’s morning in America!” is more than a Reagan campaign slogan–it’s the reality. Would that it were true.

Yes, we lead the world in entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. We have the strongest banking system, the best protection of intellectual property rights and the greatest graduate institutions. But we also have one of the poorest performance records in elementary and secondary science education and, for the last twenty years, a shrinking federal commitment to physical science research. Without the fount of discoveries that basic research produces, American innovation soon will be just a chapter in American history books.

Don’t get me wrong: we haven’t quite lost the battle. But just because we haven’t fallen flat on our faces yet, doesn’t mean we aren’t about to get our bottoms booted. Check out the R&D benchmarks of the United States and of our competitors. They’re more than a little scary, at least if you worry about your children’s future.

Sadly that message hasn’t yet resonated with the macho culture of the current administration. It’s one thing if the messengers were only liberal academics who still sport “Kerry for President” bumper stickers on their Volvos. But when they are some of the titans of corporate America–the likes of Norm Augustine, retired Chairman and CEO of Lockheed-Martin; Craig Barrett, Chairman of the Board of Intel; Ron Sugar, CEO of Northrup-Grumman; Lee Raymond, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Exxon Mobil–you’d think the President would instantly pick up the phone and invite them in. He might have wanted to, but for the better part of a year his gatekeepers didn’t.

Finally, in December, heavy hitters in the Administration–only one notch below the President and including his closest advisors –opened their doors. They might not have liked what they heard, but they listened. Give them credit for that. Time will tell whether they will give their boss the bad news and begin to correct two decades of “bipartisan lack of vision,” as Burton Richter, Nobel Laureate and former SLAC Director, is fond of describing the budgetary shambles.

It will require more than a robust presidential research budget request or an Energy Secretary who has made science his number one priority, with at least some of the dollars to back up his rhetoric. It will require presidential fortitude and jawboning. The reason is plain.

Conservatives in Congress will press hard for more tax cuts and reductions in spending. And unless the Administration makes science and competitiveness a central theme for Fiscal Year 2007, the coming months will seem like an agonizing slo-mo replay of the Fiscal Year 2006 disaster, when appropriators, usually sympathetic to science, fumed that they had finally had their fill of trying to clean up the mess the White House was continuing to create.

Add to this the dynamics of a hard-fought election year, in which partisan politics will play a dominant role, and science could vanish from the agenda of both parties, unless advocates weigh in heavily.

One third of the Senate seats and all of the House seats are up for grabs. And Democrats, savoring the allegations of illegal, unethical or simply improper behavior that have racked the Republican leadership, sense the possibility of reclaiming control of Congress in November. Without a doubt, nastiness and negativism will dominate the campaign.

But as the public inevitably tires of partisan bashing, a window of opportunity will open for science: it could become a compelling issue that both sides feature as a positive counterpart to the dark sides of their campaigns. If that happens, the nation would benefit enormously. The House Democrats have embraced the innovation theme. It’s time for the Republicans to take up the challenge. It wouldn’t hurt for them to hear from some of their constituents, and the sooner the better.



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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
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