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President's Corner

Winter 1997

Science, Politics, and Development of a New Vision

"I believe that we are a nation that has the inevitable responsibility to lead the planet. I believe there is no other replacement for us as a leader, and I think if we don't take this seriously for the next generation we are in trouble. And in order for us to lead, we have to first invest in science and in research. ..."

These words were not spoken by the director of the National Science Foundation, the president of a scientific society, the president of a major research university, or a "self-serving" scientist. They were spoken by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) at a hearing on 23 October 1997.

In an extraordinary week in October, Gingrich was not alone in his call for the United States to reaffirm its commitment to science and to increase its investment in scientific research and technology. On 21 October, Congressman George Brown, Jr. (D-CA), announced plans to introduce a fiscal year (FY) 1999 budget alternative aimed at increasing federal funding for research and development, capital infrastructure, and education and training by $70 billion over the next five years. "Public investments in R & D, transportation, and human resources, together with financial initiatives such as a targeted tax cut and a reduction of the debt, will strongly contribute to the economic growth over the next decade," Brown said.

The scientific community also joined the bipartisan call for increased public investment in science. At a 22 October press conference at the U.S. Capitol, representatives of 106 scientific societies and organizations (including UCAR) issued a Unified Statement on Research. The statement began, "To secure the economic health and prosperity of the United States as the next century approaches, our national investment in research must be strengthened. The increased competitiveness of the global economy makes such an investment even more important now than in the past. To that end, we call upon the U.S. Congress and the Administration to double the current level of federal investment in research within the next ten years, starting in fiscal year 1999."

On 22 October, Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX), joined by Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), introduced S. 1305, the National Research Investment Act of 1998. Under this bill, funding for basic nondefense scientific, medical, and engineering research could rise from an estimated $34 billion in FY 1999 to $68 billion by FY 2008. The bill is similar in many ways to the Unified Statement on Research.

In the same week that these diverse calls for increased support to science were made, the House Science Committee, led by Chairman James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), began a year-long Science Policy Study to address long-range issues of national science policy. The study, which will be chaired by committee vice chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), began with a luncheon at which Representatives Sensenbrenner, Brown, Ehlers, and Gingrich spoke about the goals of the study and why it was needed. (Roger A. Pielke, Jr., a scientist from NCAR's Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, was invited to this luncheon as a representative of the "younger generation" that will have to live under the new policy.) At the luncheon, Sensenbrenner explained why he thought it was time for a comprehensive review of the long-term future of U.S. science and technology policy. The last time the Science Committee undertook such an effort was over a decade ago, in 1985. Since then, Sensenbrenner points out, much has changed:

Then, in 1985, total federal R & D funding was growing in real dollars, and had been doing so for ten consecutive years. Now, in 1997, total federal R & D funding, adjusted for inflation, has fallen for ten consecutive years, and prospects for future growth are limited under the recent budget agreement between the Congress and the President.

Then, the Cold War was at its peak, and our societal goal of providing for the common defense engendered support not only for military but for non-military R & D as well. Now, the Cold War has ended and federal support for R & D is waning in part because it is not strongly tied in the minds of our citizens to well defined and understood societal goals.

Then, international competitiveness was emerging as the new strategic challenge for not only individual companies but entire U.S. industries. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and changes in other centrally planned economies, with the remarkable growth in developing Asia Pacific nations, with the continuing development of regional trade markets, and with the global choices for capital and labor available to industry, the world's economy is structurally different.

Then, the Internet was barely more than a gleam in the eyes of a small number of researchers at selected labs and universities operating with [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and NSF funding. Now, it is a robust and rapidly growing instrument of international commerce, privately financed and leading an information and communications revolution in ways scarcely discerned by those early researchers.

During the next year there will be field briefings and hearings, with a final report to Congress expected by the end of 1998. Members of the public are invited to submit letters to the Science Policy Study for consideration. House staff have created a Web site at http://www.house.gov/science/science_policy_study.htm.

Why the apparent sudden turnaround from the partisan turmoil of only a year ago (recall the government shutdown of 1996), when support for science funding was widely forecast to decrease by 20-30% by the year 2002? I speculate that there are a variety of reasons:

This is all good news to the scientific community. But there is much to be done to realize the increased support called for in the recent rhetoric. Most important, the country must establish a new vision of how science and technology support society and why society should increase its investment in science. This vision could be built around economic prosperity and environmental security. Scientists can play a significant role in this dialogue by contributing to the debate in a constructive manner and communicating to the government and the public in ways that focus on the value of science, technology, and education to the new vision. Specifically, scientists should contribute to the development of the new vision by participating in the House Science Policy Study. At the same time, they should continue their individual efforts to communicate with Members of Congress and the public on the need to support science and the ways science contributes to important societal goals such as education, national security, environmental stewardship, hazard reduction, health care, economic growth, and the creation of new knowledge.

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Tue Apr 4 14:43:58 MDT 2000