New Responsibilities in a New Era of Science Policy

By Vernon J. Ehlers, Member of Congress

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI)
Rep. Vernon Ehlers

Context always shapes history. Scientific and technological breakthroughs or other events that affect the scientific and engineering enterprise are no different. The Manhattan Project, for example, coming at the end of a long, bloody war and on the verge of a potentially equally bloody and protracted battle, was viewed at the time as a clear triumph of good over evil, of intellect over sheer force.

The course of further events modified society's recollections, or at least shaped the impressions of succeeding generations differently. In particular, the realization of the existence of long-term health effects from radiation exposure and the arms race that followed the war influenced the public's feelings about the appropriateness of the bombs' use and even the Manhattan Project's existence.

Vannevar Bush's 1945 report to President Truman, Science: The Endless Frontier, delivered just a few months before the bomb was dropped, had a less profound immediate impact on the nation. But its legacy, too, was shaped by the decades that followed. Implementation of Bush's call for public funding of research, for instance, received a tremendous boost during the post-war period due to the pressures of the arms and space races.

Political miscalculations made shortly after the release of the report, however, delayed implementation of a central tenet of it-the establishment of a single granting and policy body for science-so that by the time the National Science Foundation was established it had been preceded by formation of the National Institutes of Health and the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Department of Energy). For better or worse, the nation's management of science and its funding had been fragmented within the federal government.

Many of the nation's policies with respect to science were issued and shaped in the post-World War II era. But the Cold War context of urgency-of the need to maintain the scientific enterprise for the nation's very survival-has all but vanished today. Additionally, the increasing costs of scientific research in the face of declining federal funds, due to the growth of entitlements and interest on the national debt, have created a fiscally constrained atmosphere for science funding. Largely for these reasons, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, asked the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, F. James Sensenbrenner, to charge me with developing a new national science policy that fits today's needs and circumstances.

Today, while we must remain ever vigilant and militarily strong, the need to maintain economic strength has taken on primary importance. We now recognize more clearly than ever that economic strength facilitates not only a strong defense, but promotes other societal needs, such as social and political stability, good health, and the preservation of freedom.

The growth of economies throughout the world since the industrial revolution began has been driven by continual technological innovation through the pursuit of scientific understanding and application of engineering solutions. America has been particularly successful in capturing the benefits of the scientific and engineering enterprise, but it will take continued substantial investment in this enterprise if we hope to stay ahead of our economic competitors in the rest of the world. Many of those challengers have learned well the lessons of our employment of the research and technology enterprise for economic gain.

A truly great nation requires more than simply economic power and the possession of military might, however. In a truly great nation, freedom triumphs. Diversity is not just tolerated, but celebrated. The arts flourish alongside the sciences. And strength is used not to conquer, but to assist. Economic stability brings more than a high standard of living in the purely material sense. It also promotes quality of life in the broadest sense.

Science, driven by the pursuit of knowledge, and technology, the outgrowth of ingenuity, will fuel our economy, foster advances in medical research, and ensure our ability to defend ourselves against ever more technologically-advanced foes. Science also offers us an additional benefit. It can provide every citizen-not only the scientists who are engaged in it-with information necessary to make informed decisions as voters, consumers and policymakers. For the scientific enterprise to endure, however, stronger ties between this enterprise and the American people must be forged. And our position as the world's most powerful nation brings opportunities as well as responsibilities that science and its pursuit can, and should, address.

As a nation, we have much to be proud of. But we ought always to be seeking to improve. Science and technology can play important roles in driving this improvement. These beliefs-that we can do better and that improvement can come, at least in part, through a strong science and technology program-are reflected in the vision that guided the Committee on Science during the national science policy study:

The United States of America must maintain and improve its pre-eminent position in science and technology in order to advance human understanding of the universe and all it contains, and to improve the lives, health, and freedom of all peoples.

After a year of gathering input for the project, including speeches to, and discussions with, thousands of scientists and other interested citizens, two roundtable discussions, seven hearings, and over 300 email submissions, we issued our report, entitled Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy (the report is available on the Web at:

Because the continued health of the scientific enterprise is a central component in reaching the vision outlined above, the report lays out recommendations for keeping the enterprise sound and strengthening it further. The report contains no singular, sweeping plan for doing so. Instead, keeping the enterprise healthy will require numerous actions and multiple steps, and so we advocate in the report not a major overhaul of the enterprise but rather a fine-tuning and rejuvenation. It is also not something the Congress or even the federal government can do on its own; making these mid-course corrections will require the involvement of citizens and organizations-including the American Physical Society-from across the nation.

Our recommendations focus on improving three major areas. First, science-including understanding-driven research, targeted basic research, and mission-directed research-must be given the opportunity to thrive, as it is the precursor to new and better understanding, products and processes. The federal investment in science has yielded stunning payoffs. We have made major discoveries across all the scientific disciplines, and stand at the threshold of making new and equally exciting ones. Research sponsored by the federal government has spawned not only new products, but even entire industries. To build upon the strength of the research enterprise we must make federal research funding stable and substantial, maintain diversity in the federal research portfolio, and promote creative, groundbreaking research.

The role of the private sector is just as important in maintaining the overall scientific and engineering enterprise. The federal government's role in the application of research is naturally limited by the need to allow market forces to operate, but it is important that we ensure that the context in which technology-based industries operate is as conducive as possible to the advancement of science, technology, and economic growth.

Third, our system of science and mathematics education, from kindergarten to research universities, must be strengthened. Our effectiveness in realizing the vision we have identified will be largely determined by the intellectual capital of the nation. Education is critical to developing this resource. Not only must we ensure that we continue to produce world-class scientists and engineers, we must also provide every citizen with an adequate grounding in science and math if we are to give them an opportunity to succeed in the technology-based world of tomorrow-a lifelong learning proposition.

As with past events, whether the atomic bomb or Vannevar Bush's 1945 report, our recent report, Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy, will be judged based on not only future events we cannot predict, but also on actions taken in the immediate future, actions which, in contrast, we can and must effect. The scientific community has been given a rare opportunity to make an impact on national policy in a way not seen since the end of World War II. The response of this community to our report will be critical in determining the extent to which its recommendations can be implemented.

While the report strongly advocates federal funding for understanding-driven research, for example, support from the scientific community that focuses exclusively on this one recommendation will not be enough to accomplish it. Instead, scientists must become more thoroughly engaged in resolving some of the other, often more difficult, policy issues before the nation and the scientific enterprise. For example, the issue of research priorities within and among various disciplines must be addressed, ways to measure research performance must be identified, and hands-on reform of the educational system must be undertaken. Our report lays the groundwork for making some of these decisions and improvements, but it is only the first step. The scientific community as a whole must become more involved in promoting change if the scientific enterprise is to have the profound impact it is capable of exerting, and thus bring about improvements in the lives, health and freedoms of all peoples.

This involvement can take place on the national level, through interactions with federal policymakers, for example, or at the local level, through participation in city, county or state government. Speeches to local civic groups can help bridge the communication gaps that often exist between scientists and the rest of society. Invitations to students at nearby schools to tour or work in one's laboratory, or talks given to students in the classroom are ways to become more actively involved in education. I encourage each and every one of you to take at least one such step. In doing so, you will not only be helping to strengthen the scientific enterprise, but also the nation.

Vern Ehlers, a Fellow of the APS, was first elected to Congress in December 1993 after a distinguished career of teaching, scientific research, and community service. He is the first PhD research physicist to serve in the US Congress, and currently serves as Vice Chairman of the House Science Committee.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

November 1998 (Volume 7, Number 10)

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Centennial: APS Establishes Travel Grants for Student Centennial Attendance
Centennial: Topical Symposia Arranged for Centennial Meeting
Centennial: APS Ephemera Wanted/APS Centurions
Centennial: Historical Factal
Centennial: A Century of Physics
Centennial: Prominent Physicists CD-ROM
Leo Szilard Lectureship Award is Funded
Physicists To Be Honored at November Meetings
In Brief
Physical Review Focus
Senior Membership
APS Regional Sections Hold Fall Meetings
Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis
The Back Page
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science