PRISM Magazine - January 2003
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- By Kenneth T. Walsh 

The new conservative lineup in Washington—featuring Republican control over the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House—will mean surprisingly little change in science and technology policy at the federal level.

That's because much of the science and technology agenda is considered nonpartisan and won't be altered by the stronger hand that voters dealt to the GOP in the November 2002 elections. In the last session, Congress sliced about $10 billion from what the government had planned to spend in 2003, and some of this cut will likely come out of R&D programs. However, on issues where both parties strongly disagree—such as whether to greatly expand domestic energy development as favored by many conservatives and the Bush White House—the GOP didn't gain enough seats to give them an overwhelming advantage.

Here is what to expect in 2003:

National Science Foundation. For the first time in years, Congress has passed, by huge margins, an NSF authorization bill. And this one calls for doubling the agency's budget over the next five years. It also promotes math and science education with scholarships for future teachers, money for education research and curriculum reform, and incentives for universities, K-12 schools, businesses, and education agencies to form math and science education partnerships.

The challenge will be to find the money to pay for what Congress has authorized. The House and Senate have approved double-digit increases for NSF in 2003, but all nondefense spending is still susceptible to cutting before Congress completes the appropriations process. In addition, tensions between Congress and the agency over NSF's management practices may make the agency a target for legislators looking for $10 billion in budget savings. Despite these uncertainties, the widely supported authorization bill and general high regard for university-based R&D in Congress make NSF's prospects better than those of most other federal science agencies.

Other funding fights. Not surprisingly, following the budgetary success of the National Institutes of Health, other science agencies are lining up to claim their share of the pie. Some members of the scientific community are arguing, for example, that NIH's windfall crowded out the Department of Energy's civilian science office and other agencies where more investment in science and engineering could be a boon. Look for supporters of DOE's Office of Science and NASA to be making big pushes in 2003. Meanwhile, NIH would like to increase its budget by another 50 percent over the next five years.

Energy. The battle between energy developers and environmentalists will continue to heat up as the 2004 elections approach. On one side are the Bush administration and other conservatives who believe the nation needs to develop more of its domestic sources of oil, natural gas, and other energy supplies. To that end, Washington insiders expect a renewed GOP push to allow drilling in Alaska.

On the other side are those who favor a shift to conservation and what Representative Rush Holt (D-N.J.) calls "new sources of energy born in the labs of American ingenuity and innovation." This would mean more federal investment in R&D to create fuel cells and fusion energy and to improve energy efficiency across the board. The Bush administration favors more R&D but with a particular emphasis on defense and specific programs to bolster the war on terrorism.

Leadership. Perhaps the most striking change triggered by the November election will be a shift in leadership in the new GOP-controlled Senate. Not only will a Republican replace Tom Daschle (D-S.Dak) as Senate majority leader but there will be a complete turnover in committee chairmanships. None is as dramatic as conservative James Inhofe (R-Okla) replacing moderate (and former Republican) James Jeffords (I-Vt.) in running the Environment and Public Works Committee.

In the House, Science Committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) will continue to work cooperatively with Ralph Hall (D-Tex.). Modest progress is expected on legislation to increase government investment in nanotechnology, considered a key to treatment of disease and to advancements in electronics and other fields. The committee is also expected to fashion legislation reauthorizing NASA and proceeding with an international space station.

But no one should expect any big policy departures over the next two years. The outlook is simple: the status quo.


Kenneth T. Walsh is chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. He can be reached at