Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 24  |  Friday, May 18, 2001  |  Number 8
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Political Science 101

by Mike Perricone

Former presidential science adviser Neal Lane thinks the idea of a "balanced portfolio" for research spending is the right track for the science community. But being on the right track isn't enough, Lane said. In fact, it can be dangerous.

"Will Rogers used to say that even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there," Lane told the recent Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Six months ago, Lane was the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and science adviser to the outgoing President Clinton. As Lane spoke, President Bush had yet to name a successor. Lane told listeners that "the debate of six months ago bears no relation to today's debate."

Lane's was one voice of many cautioning that advancement in science will require more than sitting on its budget track record. During the May 3-4 AAAS gathering in Washington, DC to examine science policy in the new Administration, many voices expressed concern about science being run over:

  • Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), new chairman of the House Science Committee: "The science budgets proposed by the president are too low. Funding for the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science are especially disappointing. I'm also very disturbed by the level of research funds for alternative energy sources."

  • Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Water: "There is no presidential science adviser, and decisions are not being put off until this position is filled. The Administration withdrew new restrictions on arsenic levels in water, saying they were not based on good science. There have been decisions on climate change and energy that should have had input from top science and engineering advisersÍThe Vice President's Task Force on Energy will issue a report that would have benefited from the input of a presidential science adviser."

  • John Yochelson, chairman of the Council on Competitiveness: "There is a sense of anxiety, and not just because there's no director for the Office of Science, no director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, no presidential science adviser. There's a real sense of crisis confronting the future of science and technology, and it has people deeply concerned."

    n Mary L. Good, chair of the AAAS Board of Directors: "The only area of science funding that is reasonably flat with respect to Gross Domestic Product is the National Institutes of Health. All the others are losing ground. The physical sciences and engineering are down 25 percent in the last 25 years. It's not that NIH is getting too much. The other sciences are getting too little."

  • Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget Program: "The discretionary portion of the budget must be decided every year, despite long-term effects. We as a community must pay attention year after yearÍWe face very tough competition for very scarce resources."

    As in years past, the keynote speech of the AAAS gathering had been slated originally for the president's science adviser, who might have offered a perspective with insights into the Administration's science plan and outlook. With the science post vacant, presidential economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey stepped inˇfirmly.

    Lindsey declared that "scientific research lies behind long-term economic success." His subsequent remarks however, seemed to point to an alternative interpretation. He said "growth in the economy produces growth in science and technology and protection for the environment," maintaining that "most scientific development occurs in the private sector and not-for-profits."

    Generally cited as an architect of President George W. Bush's tax policy, Lindsey offered an example of a nine percent return over a century reducing the cost of a development 5,000 times. Thus, Dennis Tito's $20-million space excursion fare would drop to $4,000 in a hundred years, as the $20 light bulb of a century ago now costs 40 cents. Lindsey sketched out the policy implications by explaining that promoting "long-term growth is better than trying to address issues with today's technology," because the future solutions are "cheaper and more efficient."

    Applying those principles, Lindsey said the United Nations' Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change "offers no incentives to investment," "imposes restrictions before technology is in place," and "hurts our production and reduces our capacity to find ways to work against global warming." Lindsey's presentation made it clear that the Bush Administration would shun the UN framework for reducing the production of greenhouse gases, which places a major responsibility on the most-industrialized nations.

    Lindsey expressed dismay that gasoline prices were "more than $2 a gallon in downtown Chicago," and stressed the Administration's priority of developing an energy supply policy.

    In the audience was Hubert Markl, President of the Max Planck Society in the Federal Republic of Germany, which has signed (but not ratified) the Kyoto Protocol. As Markl addressed the Colloquium during Friday's luncheon, he was having difficulty digesting Lindsey's remarks.

    "Many countries supported the Kyoto accord not as a solution, but as a step in the right direction," Markl said. "As a European, I find the message from the United States to be highly disappointing: the world's sole remaining superpower, with four percent of the world's population, using more than 20 percent of the world's energy resources, refusing to be part of an effort to reduce greenhouse gas production."

    Markl found it hard to sympathize with U.S. gasoline prices.

    "In Europe, we pay $5 a gallon," he countered. "In Germany, we make some of the most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and we make money selling them. We are also leading the world in preparations for the use of hydrogen fuel cells. We believe we must aim for increased energy efficiency by investing in new technology. We believe we must all work together for a sustainable world."

    Markl also noted that, in non-defense and non-NIH categories, Germany invests a higher percentage of its GDP into basic research than does the U.S. There, he touched a central nerve of the conference.

    In constant 2001 dollars, U.S. non-defense R&D spending has increased roughly 50 percent since 1976, from about $30 billion to about $46 billion projected in 2002. But if NIH spending is subtracted, the R&D curve is essentially flat, starting at around $24 billion in 1976 and ending up at about the same $24 billion projected in 2002. Comparing the FY2001 R&D budget with the FY2002 budget request, funding for the National Science Foundation is down about two percent, and funding for the Department of Energy is down four percent.

    House Committe Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) Boehlert, an 18-year veteran of the House Science Committee, joked that this year wouldn't have been his pick to take over the chairmanship. The scientific community, he said, has "talked itself into a funk" over funding. He promised that the numbers would improve as the budget process continued, noting that the Senate had voted to increase funding for DOE, NSF and NASA, while he had just come from a House vote to increase domestic discretionary spending by five percent.

    But he also reiterated his own concernsˇand the general concern among the attendeesˇabout the impact of flat funding on the future.

    "We won't be more efficient by spending less money, and we won't be more efficient by treading water for a couple of years," Boehlert said. "We shouldn't have to deplete one science to spend on another...But competition for federal dollars is huge. We need to reinforce the case for R&D analytically. We need to make specific arguments for specific spending to achieve a balanced research portfolio."

    The Department of Energy's Dr. James Decker, who has stepped in several times to serve as acting director of DOE's Office of Science, offered an analysis that could serve as a template. Decker noted that the Office of Science provides:

  • 40 percent of federal physics funding;

  • 90 percent of high-energy physics and nuclear physics funding;

  • support for more than 6,500 graduate students and postdocs;

  • support for 4,800 grad students and postdocs at large scientific facilities, such as particle accelerators;

  • infrastructure support for 10 DOE laboratories;

  • support for about 16,000 researchers every year at its accelerators, synchrotron light sources, neutron sources, large fusion experiments and special purpose facilities.

    Decker's figures showed expansion in Office of Science resources for life science researchers, with NIH users at synchrotron light sources growing from 762 in 1998, to 1,262 in 2000. He explained that DOE had actually established the basis for the human genome project in 1986 with research into human susceptibility to biomediation, specifically from nuclear weapons plants. Looking ahead, he said he hopes for major findings during Run II at Fermilab.

    "This is a very exciting time in physics," Decker said, "one of the most exciting I've seen, with research into the Standard Model and divergence from the Standard Model. We've placed a high priority on trying to take advantage of the window of opportunity at Fermilab. With the Large Hadron Collider [at CERN] not coming on line for five or six years, we're investing in accelerator and detector upgrades and in run time to see if the Higgs particle is where people think it is."

    How does a case like Decker's become an effective selling point for research? Lane, the politically-oriented scientist, and Boehlert, the scientifically-oriented politician, offered the same answer: scientists must be involved in politics.

    Lane urged the scientific community to speak with "one voice," to "speak to the uninformed," and to "speak to people you don't normally speak to." Boehlert's parallel advice was even more politically specific: Don't spend time talking to Washington allies like himself. Contact members in their home districts, following the Tip O'Neill dictum that "all politics is local." Talk to the new members of every Congress. Tell them about jobs, and about the impact of science on the economy.

    Boehlert cited a letter he received from a second-grader, saying: "Without science the world would be wacko. There might not even be gravity."

    "Washington is already wacko," Boehlert acknowledged. "But there's no faulting this second grader's logic. If we don't understand the world around us, that world ceases to exist. Scientists must take the time to understand the world of politics."

    There appears to be no other choice.

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  • last modified 6/4/2001 by C. Hebert   email Fermilab