APS News

Inside the Beltway


By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

It may not be a true “come-to-Jesus moment,” but within the last year, more members of Congress than I can count have turned to science as the savior. And for several of them, it represents a religious conversion and not a born again experience.

In the fifteen years I have been prowling the corridors of power, I must admit that I rarely encountered anyone who was overtly hostile to science. If there was a Luddite in the crowd of 535, I never met him–or her. More often what I received was a pat on the back, with the implied, but never spoken words, “You’re a nice, smart fellow and I’ve enjoyed talking to you, but I’ve got more weighty matters to deal with.”

No more. Take David Obey (D-WI, 7th), for example, the powerful, intelligent and occasionally irascible chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. For years three attributes summed up his political persona: a commitment to helping hardworking have-nots; advancing medicine and healthcare; and carrying around a pack of carefully sharpened pencils in his white shirt pocket, points up. When the number of pencils exceeded four, his staff knew not to mess with him–his eddied state of agitation could quickly turn into a class F4 tornado.

Science concerns, apart from medicine, would never have led him to add another pointed pencil to his storm alert system. Science, in general, was not one of his priorities.

But within the last year, Obey has become a science champion.  And when the Science Engineering Technology (SET) Working Group presented him with the George E. Brown, Jr. Public Service Award this past April, he interrupted his overbooked schedule and trekked across the Capitol to the Senate Hart Office Building for the first time in his life–by his own admission–to receive the plaque.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, 8th) might not have undergone quite the same epiphany, but in the last year her zeal for science has reached new heights.  This column has too few inches for any significant exposition, but if you Google “science, science, science, science” you will quickly get the gist of my point.

In May, in recognition of her work, Craig Barrett, who had recently stepped down from his Intel board chairmanship, presented her with the Task Force on American Innovation’s Legislator of the Year award. Pelosi was visibly moved, but just how much I didn’t learn until a few days later during a conversation with Louise Slaughter (D-NY, 28th), who chairs the House Rules Committee.

During the weeks preceding the award ceremony, Pelosi had been embroiled in a dispute over whether the CIA had misled Congress on its use of “water boarding” at the Guantanamo detention center, as she alleged, or whether, as her critics asserted, she was covering up her tacit, politically opportunistic support for the practice in 2003 when the CIA said it had briefed her on its use.

The usually feisty Speaker, seemed to have lost her spark in the weeks preceding the Task Force event, and in one memorable press conference, she fumbled for words, a warning sign for any politician that the opposition’s volleys were landing close to their intended target.

Pelosi, according to Slaughter, was feeling beleaguered. And Barrett’s presentation of the innovation award, she said, came at a time the Speaker needed her spirits to be buoyed most. That it came from Barrett, a fellow Californian, who has Republican leanings, clearly touched her deeply.

Congress and the White House are calling on science, especially the physical sciences, including math and engineering, to help pull the nation out of the deepest recession in more than half a century; to address global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions; to make the country less dependent on foreign oil; to lower the cost of medicine through better use of information technology; to strengthen our national defenses; and to reduce the threat of terrorism at home. Those are pretty high expectations. And it’s not clear that science can deliver on all of them.

But no one has been calling on the physical sciences to address emotional vulnerabilities, especially those of elected officials.  As the case of the Speaker demonstrates, however, science can be serendipitous. It sometimes yields rewards we never anticipate.



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Editor: Alan Chodos