Science Under Attack

November 9, 2010

The results of the November 2 elections will transform the House of Representatives from a pro-science chamber to one that is at worst overtly hostile to federal research and education programs or at best highly skeptical of their worth. Although some new members will submit bills to eliminate the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, the bills will almost certainly fail. However, the rhetoric surrounding them will likely lead to a nasty legislative environment for science.

Currently, the leadership of the new House majority is not supporting legislation to eliminate federal agencies, but it is firmly committed to rolling back federal spending to FY 2008 levels. With national security spending mostly exempt, civilian programs, science among them, could take a 25 percent hit. And even though the Senate and the White House will push back strongly, budgets might be trimmed to some degree either through a compromise on appropriations bills or through Continuing Resolutions at FY 2010 levels or slightly below. Under a string of CR’s, no new projects would be allowed to start, and money from completed projects could not be reprogrammed.

The House will also almost certainly use its investigative powers to keep presidential appointees on the hot seat. Energy Secretary Steve Chu will likely be among those grilled multiple times on climate change, Energy Hubs and Energy Frontier Research Centers. Finally, some of the House freshmen who received strong backing from the Tea Party will attack federal spending on projects located abroad, among them LHC and ITER. The attacks will fail, but their anti-science fallout could be significant.

Since many of the new members of the House and Senate have a strong anti-Washington tilt, they will only be solicitous of their own constituents, and then mostly in the context of jobs. If APS members care about science, their own research programs, their own jobs and the future of their colleagues and students, they will have to make visits to the district and state offices of their senators and representatives starting now. And they will have to keep reminding their elected officials about the importance of their work for the future of the American economy and for national security.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.