APS News

Outlook for Science after Congressional Changeover

By Michael Lucibella

In the recent midterm elections, Republicans gained a majority of U.S. Senate seats, while holding onto their majority in the House of Representatives. Experts say that science funding is not likely to be a particular target for the new Republican majority, but science will almost certainly feel the pinch of shrinking federal budgets.

“Nothing much is going to change in Washington,” said Michael Lubell, director of Public Affairs for APS. “The gridlock is, I think, going to continue.”

Despite some high-profile controversies, particularly about climate change and green energy technology, science funding generally has not been a fractious partisan issue, particularly for basic research in the physical sciences. The change in control of the Senate is unlikely to dramatically refocus the country’s emphasis on research.

“The historic reality is that science in general [has been] well funded across the aisle, especially basic research,” said Roger Pielke, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The science budget has been a pretty constant proportion of the domestic discretionary budget.”

Across all the agencies, combined research and development generally makes up between about 11 and 14 percent of the federal discretionary budget. Senator John Thune (R-SD) is currently the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and he will likely take over as its chair in the next Congress. I think Thune is a pretty strong supporter of science,” Lubell said, adding that Thune has spoken out several times about the importance of funding science research.

Similarly, Thad Cochran (R-MS) is considered the top contender to lead the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful committees in the Senate because it oversees the federal budget, including the science budget. “Every indication that I’ve seen and his track record [shows] that he’s a big supporter of science. Whether that translates to budget increases is a matter of the overall Republican [priorities],” Pielke said.

Though the proportion of federal money devoted to research and development may be unlikely to change dramatically, the size of the total pot it pulls from is likely to continue to decrease. The economic downturn and acrimonious relations between the two parties in Congress have kept the total federal budget at roughly the same levels since 2009, a net loss when adjusted for inflation.

“Overall, we’re looking at least at a constrained budget if not a shrinking budget,” Lubell said. “It means that there is going to be less money presumably to be spent on discretionary budgets.”

Pielke agrees that even science agencies that have seen their budgets increase at a healthy pace in recent years shouldn’t expect much continued growth. “I think the budget is going to be tight for science,” Peilke said. “I don’t think you’re going to see any dramatic expansion [of the National Institutes of Health research budget] like you saw in the Clinton years and then in the Bush years.”

The political winds in Washington also seem to be blowing against any kind of increase to federal budgets in the near future. Many of the newly-elected Republican members of Congress are from the wing of the party most focused on reducing the size of the federal budget.

“These are people who have all gone on the record saying that they want to cut government spending and shrink the role of the federal government,” Lubell said.

However, the continued gridlock in Congress is likely to prevent any dramatic reductions as well. “With a Democrat still in the White House, radical across-the-board cuts don’t look very likely, and absent those I don’t think there is any reason to think that science as a whole would be singled out for cuts by Republicans,” said Daniel Sarewitz, the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, there’s the chance also that compromise is more possible than when control was split between the two parties.

“You also have an opportunity for the House and Senate to get their act together and negotiate with the president with one position,” Pielke said.

Lubell, however, is skeptical, predicting instead that Congress will approve a number of bills with provisions that the President finds unpalatable. “I don’t believe that the gridlock is going to vanish, Obama is going to veto a lot of bills,” he said.

Residual acrimony from the election campaign could pose one of the biggest potential threats to science funding. During the lead-up to the election, a number of independent groups ran ads targeting Republicans as being anti-science, largely because of their opposition to climate change efforts. A particular target was the conservative James Inhofe (R-OK), who will likely head the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and who wrote a book calling global warming a hoax and a conspiracy by scientists.

“There are going to be people out there but they don’t represent a political party, they represent a particular point of view,” Lubell said. “There are plenty of Republicans that don’t fit into that mold.… There are plenty of Republicans that have a tremendous amount of respect for science.”

However, the Republicans, who were by and large the targets of such attacks, are now in control of Congress.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last election… it’s that science issues make very poor issues in politics,” Pielke said. “For the science community to do well in the budget process over the next two years, the science community has to make peace with the Republicans, and that’s not something that the science community has wanted to do,” he said.


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Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella
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