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Inside the Beltway

Does Science Have Any Washington Guarantors Anymore?

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” so said Harry S. Truman more than half a century ago. Actually he never did, according to his presidential library, but he might just as well have. And he might just as well have been speaking to America’s scientists today. Here’s why.

In just a few months, science will lose three friends — of the human variety — when Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) retire at the end of the year. Replacing them will not be easy.

Rockefeller, along with former Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), was a principal cosponsor of the original “doubling bill,” S. 296, “The Federal Research Investment Act” of 1999, which proposed doubling the budgets for non-defense R&D over twelve years.

Wolf, from his perch atop the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations subcommittee, has been one of the guarantors of funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He was also an initiator of the National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that led to the America COMPETES Act and President George W. Bush’s America Competitive Initiative.

And for many years physicist Rush Holt teamed with his former colleague Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), also a physicist, as the conscience of science in the House.

In Washington circles, it’s assumed scientists are and always have been knee-jerk Democrats. And in scientific circles, it’s assumed Democratic officeholders are and always have been knee-jerk supporters of science. Neither is true.

I cut my political teeth in the Republican Party at the same time I was climbing the physics ladder at Yale. And science in that era, if it found any partisan preference, was probably more of a Republican brand than Democrat. You need look no further than D. Alan Bromley, who was the chairman of the Yale Physics Department, later to become George H.W. Bush’s science advisor.

More recently, you couldn’t find more staunch supporters of science than Rep. Sherwood “Sherry” Boehlert (R-NY) and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM). But in the last half dozen years Washington has changed, and the Tea Party brand of Republicanism — with some rare exceptions — has caused an anti-science flavor to gel into the GOP aspic.

At the same time, as I have been warning my Washington colleagues for quite a while, Democratic populists are far from the knee-jerk science supporters many Inside-the-Beltway science advocates think they are. Case in point: A few weeks ago, I was at a private dinner on Capitol Hill, hosted by one of my close friends, who also happens to be a member of the House of Representatives. With few exceptions, the other partakers of food, drink and conversation were also members of Congress — by way of disclosure, all of them Democrats. Since the affair was private, I cannot reveal the names of the protagonists. Suffice to say they were quite highly placed and highly visible.

Earlier that day, the House had been expected to take up legislation making the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit permanent — something that has been on the high-tech lobbying agenda for many years. The perennial stumbling block for permanency had been an arcane budget rule that allowed Congress to enact a last-minute yearly temporary fix but not to enshrine the credit with permanency without a lasting spending offset.

The temporary nature of the R&E tax fix was giving the high-tech industry fits, since there was never any guarantee that Congress would enact the annual patch in time. And sometimes Congress did miss the target date entirely, leaving industrial research and development in taxation purgatory.

The ceaseless congressional dithering carried substantial costs for America’s innovation enterprise, and finally high-tech industry seemed to have made an airtight case. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and the Republican House leadership got behind the American Research and Competitiveness Act of 2014 and were preparing to bring the legislation to the floor for a vote.

But Democrats cried foul: Congress was under a “pay-go” rule, and the tax credit was being reported to the floor without an offset. The consequence would have been across-the-board spending reductions, including for social safety net accounts. And that brings me to the conversation at the Washington dinner.

It involved a strong supporter of science, whom I will call Rep. X, and a member of the Democratic leadership, whom I will refer to as Rep. Y.

Rep. Y: “You must not support the tax credit, since it will damage essential middle class programs.”

Rep. X: “But I am known as Mr. Research, and the tax credit is essential for innovation, and economic growth.”

Rep. Y: “I know, but our party’s priorities at this point have to be focused on the middle class.” As a scientist, I was in Rep. X’s corner, but as a politico I could understand Rep. Y’s bias. Two days later, the House passed the bill 274 to 131 with more than two thirds of the Democrats voting against it and the president threatening to veto it.

The bottom line is that scientists shouldn’t take either party for granted and must be prepared to make the most compelling case for federal support of research and education.

Science needs to have a dog in Washington but not as a friend. It needs to have a dog in the fight over shrinking resources.

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