APS News

Inside the Beltway

Time to Hit the Road

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

The Tea Party stranglehold on the House Republican Conference shows little sign of easing anytime soon.

Two months ago, it caused the already squeaky wheels of Washington to freeze entirely. And in the process, it nearly catapulted the nation into a fiscal void.

But despite the abysmal approval ratings the public gives the federal government, 39 percent for the president, according to recent polling, and 9 percent — yes, you read that correctly — for Congress, our elected officials can't seem to find a way to end the awful impasse.

Their failure doesn't mean that all paths forward are impassable. It simply means that taking any one of them carries too much risk for a leader. And if you guess the leader I most particularly have in mind is Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), you're correct. But where physics is concerned, I also have my sights set on the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX).

Boehner, of course, has far more at stake, since only three additional votes cast against him last January would have separated him from the House gavel. Smith, by contrast, might face the barbs of the über-conservative brigade, but it's highly unlikely he would lose his committee chairmanship. Unfortunately, I have little confidence that either of them will step up and do what's necessary.

National Journal Daily recently provided the clearest forecast about the GOP's House of Representatives kingpin. In "John Boehner's Big Choice," Billy House wrote, "As John Boehner enters his fourth year as House speaker, his own website biography reflects little in the way of major accomplishments while holding the gavel…And so, with little more than a year left in his current term, the nation's 53rd speaker faces a choice: He can spend the next year much like the last, trying to reconcile the rambunctious Tea Party wing of his conference with the more moderate Republicans in a stand against Democrats in the Senate and the White House. Or he can work with House Democrats and a loose coalition of roughly 30 Republicans…"

Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel, provided an unequivocal response: "[Boehner] has been clear…that he intends to be Speaker again in the next Congress. And frankly the idea that he might ever abandon his members and his principles is a stupid liberal fantasy."

Which brings me to Lamar Smith, for whom I had high hopes when he took over the Science, Space and Technology chairmanship from Ralph Hall (R-TX). Under Hall's brief two-year stewardship, the committee had produced a very thin record. When Smith picked up the gavel last January, he did so with a promise of injecting new enthusiasm into a committee charged with charting the nation's science and technology future.

But that was before Tea Partisans made it clear they regarded the 2012 election as a mandate for continued legislative troublemaking, especially within the GOP ranks, despite an outcome that unambiguously returned Barack Obama to the White House. As a result, during the last 11 months, Smith has found it impossible to advance the policies and authorization levels needed to strengthen America's science and innovation enterprise without facing a Tea Party backlash.

With little chance of a budget deal that frees up significant money for discretionary spending, the prospects for a good science deal are poor–unless the public gets behind such an initiative. And that leads to the need for a science marketing road show.

It's possible to get lawmakers to pump up science spending when budgets are going up by reminding them of the benefits to the economy, national security and medicine. But when budgets are heading down, the first priority for any member of Congress is to keep dollars flowing to programs the public values most. And as we have learned from polling, science isn't one of them.

The explanation is simple: The public has little knowledge of the societal benefits of science, apart from diagnosing and curing diseases. And even there, the voters generally don't know how and where the breakthroughs happen.

Their ignorance is mostly our fault. For decades, we have shunned the task of marketing science to the public, except to people who already appreciate it — and even then, only rarely by emphasizing the innovations that have flowed from discovery. Even more rarely have we connected the dots from taxpayer dollars to taxpayer benefits.

The time has come for a game changer. And during the last few months, APS has been working with a number of other professional societies across all the sciences, including the social sciences, to launch a pilot project aimed at exploring whether advertising benefits of science can move the public needle.

If this experimental venture, "ScienceCounts," proves successful in a small but representative testing area, we will have to marshal resources to carry out the campaign on a much broader scale. It will require the commitment of the entire science community. But with the future of American science hanging in the balance, we can do no less.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella