APS News

Inside the Beltway

The Summer of Our Discontent

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

“He’s out,” said Pooh sadly . . . and while he waited for Piglet not to answer, he jumped up and down to keep warm, and a hum came suddenly into his head, which seemed to him a Good Hum, such as is Hummed Hopefully to Others.

“The more it snows (Tiddely pom), The more it goes (Tiddely pom), The more it goes (Tiddely pom) On snowing. And nobody knows (Tiddely pom), How cold my toes (Tiddely pom), How cold my toes (Tiddely pom), Are growing.”  -The House at Pooh Corner

A.A. Milne wrote those words 85 years ago, and they are still apt, at least as far as the affairs of government are concerned. The calendar may read July, but there is a distinctly partisan chill in the Washington summer air, sadly with no end in sight.

As much as I had hoped several months ago that bipartisan cooperation on gun control and immigration might provide a path forward toward good faith bargaining between the Republican House and the Democratic White House, recent events have forced me to lower the odds substantially.

Benghazi missteps, Justice Department mischief and IRS misbehavior have created an Administration trifecta tripwire that Republicans could not possibly have imagined six months ago. Instead of a thaw in partisan dueling, both sides have unsheathed their swords and are doing battle anew.

Just weeks ago on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, in discussing the IRS scandal with host Candy Crowley, called President Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney a “paid liar.”

David Plouffe, former senior White House adviser and Obama confidant, immediately snapped back with the tweet, “Strong words from Mr. Grand Theft Auto and suspected arsonist/insurance swindler. And loose ethically today.”

Such dialog does not provide much hope for bipartisan hatchet burying. And without a cessation of hostilities, it’s hard to see how Washington will fix the dysfunctional mess it created for science in the fiscal year 2013 budget.

To fiscal conservatives, across-the-board sequestration cuts, which the Continuing Resolution baked into the year-end pie, don’t seem like a big deal. After all, they say, you can always root out five or six percent waste in any federal program. But, as with many generalizations, the facts often differ jarringly with the mythology.

Take the National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, which commits research support three years forward to guarantee continuity in grants it has agreed to fund, even though it only receives its appropriations annually. Such a policy leaves two-thirds of NSF grants fenced off in any fiscal year. So, absent any other machinations, a five percent reduction in the Foundation’s budget would produce a 15 percent dip in support for new grants or renewals.

But for fiscal year 2013, the dip will be more like a dive. Here’s why.

Congressional appropriators and NSF administrators have elected to hold a number of high-profile activities harmless, among them construction projects and initiatives. Those decisions place an overwhelming burden of the sequestration on the Foundation’s “Core Program,” which funds university individual investigators and accounts for slightly more than two-thirds of the NSF’s research budget. The result: a projected 20 to 25 percent reduction in available funds for new proposals and renewal requests in many activity areas.

Regrettably, young scientists, who are just entering the competition for research funding, will be hit hardest. Unless lawmakers put an end to the gridlock that has caused the current mess, our nation could foreclose on an entire generation of scientists.

Which brings me back to the issue of bipartisanship, without which there will be little hope for science or anything else. Unfortunately, for now, it appears more likely that the summer months will reflect more of an ideological freeze than a much-needed thaw in across-the-aisle relations. Even the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, historically a paradigm for bipartisan comity, has recently fallen prey to nasty partisan sniping.

In an ill-conceived and poorly executed hunt for social and behavioral science grants that might not pass muster in some congressional quarters, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) sent a politically tinged letter on April 25 to NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett requesting copies of the peer review reports for five proposals the Foundation had funded. Smith wrote, “Based on my review…I have concerns regarding some grants…and how closely they adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline.”

It took less than 24 hours for Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the committee’s ranking Democrat, to respond. In a sharply worded message to Smith, Johnson wrote, “…your letter marks the beginning of an investigative effort, the implications of which are profound. This is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely viewed as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world.”

According to several members of the House committee, the rupture between the chairman and the ranking member has sown seeds of partisan mistrust that will be difficult to repair anytime soon.

And if the winds of partisanship don’t soon abate, the current session of Congress could well be the least productive in history. And the coming months will become the summer of our discontent.


©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella