Science and the Political Pendulum

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

In politics, 10 years is an eternity. A decade ago, in the aftermath of dramatic Democratic successes in the 2006 election, pundits were sounding the death knell of the Republican Party. They were dead wrong.

Like the mythological phoenix, the Republican Party has risen from the political ashes. It now has a commanding majority of 247 to 188 seats in the House of Representatives — its largest margin since 1930 — and a controlling margin of 54 seats in the Senate. It also counts 33 governors, including two in the heavily Democratic states of Massachusetts and Maryland, as well as 68 out of 98 state legislative chambers. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature.)

Today, pundits are predicting Democrats will be wandering the political wilderness for decades to come. Don’t bet on that prediction either!

The public is fickle, and in politics the pendulum is constantly swinging. So too is political support for research and trust in science.

Ten years ago, the Republicans and Democrats were of one mind: federal support of science needed a big boost. In 2006, the Bush Administration unveiled the American Competitiveness Initiative, with the goal of doubling funding over a decade for three agencies: the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Democrats, who took control of Congress the following year, unveiled their own Innovation Initiative and swiftly moved forward with the America COMPETES Act of 2007 that drew wide bipartisan support for setting science agencies on a seven-year doubling path.

Scroll forward to 2015. Today if you open a conversation with the average Republican member of Congress about America’s flagging global scientific leadership, you will likely get a tepid response. Spending less, not more, on any government activity, save defense, is central to the GOP budget goals laid out by Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the newly elected speaker of the House of Representatives.

After his Republican colleagues elected him to the top slot with 236 out of 247 possible votes, Ryan pledged to repair what he characterized as a “broken” House of Representatives. Unlike his predecessor, John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was a quintessential insider and dealmaker, Ryan said he would devolve legislative power to House committees and the rank-and-file membership. And he pledged to “wipe the slate clean,” making deficit reduction and tax reform top priorities.

As you might imagine, Democrats don’t share the same vision for a future legislative agenda, unless tax reform means increasing taxes on the wealthy. For Democrats, addressing the wealth, income and opportunity disparities gets top billing.

On such a politically polarized landscape, it’s easy to see why bipartisanship is an extraordinarily rare commodity. When political jousting takes precedence over reaching compromises, and intransigence becomes the guiding principle of either party, gridlock becomes inevitable. For science, that’s bad news. As U.S. global scientific leadership wanes, continuing to put research on autopilot will not have a happy ending.

The latest budget deal, which will probably avert government shutdowns during the next two years, provides a ray of hope. Under the agreement, which takes sequestration off the table, non-defense domestic discretionary spending, in which science is embedded, is poised to rise by slightly more than seven percent, not including the effects of inflation. Still, at the end of the two-year period, research spending in constant dollars will remain well below its fiscal year 2004 peak.

What will almost certainly remain unchanged for the duration of President Obama’s term is the acerbic relationship between the White House and congressional Republicans, who have reflexively opposed almost all of the president’s spending priorities since he took office in 2007. From that perspective, it’s hard to see how President Obama’s support of science will have much impact on the final deliberations of a GOP congressional majority that has strayed from its traditional pro-science stance.

To be sure, there may be some exceptions, most notably Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Reps. Michael McCaul and John Culberson of Texas, and Randy Hultgren of Illinois.

Unfortunately, the partisan science divide is likely to extend beyond disagreements over spending levels. Trust in science and trust of scientists, once overwhelmingly embraced by Republicans, has fallen victim to disputes over the role science should play in policy-making and the conduct of scientists more generally.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee, for example, has repeatedly questioned the validity of science used by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in advancing policies on climate change and pollution. The committee has also questioned the impartiality of peer-review practices at NSF in setting agency priorities and evaluating proposals. Finally, the committee has supported legislation that would bar the federal government from using the results of any DOE-sponsored research in developing policies and regulations.

There is little doubt the political pendulum has swung substantially over the last decade. And there is little doubt it will continue to swing. But which way it will swing and how it will affect science remains anybody’s guess.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

December 2015 (Volume 24, Number 11)

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Articles in this Issue
Astronomy Allies Team Up to Confront Sexual Harassment
First Elected APS Treasurer: James Hollenhorst
Squinting to See a Single Photon
Tracking Earth’s Carbon Cycle from Space
2015 APS National Mentoring Committee and Bridge Program Conference
Edible Optics, Tracking Bugs, and More
Steering Small-Scale Satellites
APS Council of Representatives Approves Three New Statements
Inside APS
This Month in Physics History
Diversity Update
Profiles in Versatility
The Back Page
Inside the Beltway