An Uncertain Relationship

- By Kenneth T. Walsh

“What's extraordinary about this moment in time, on both missile defense and the greenhouse effect, is the substantial consensus against the White House policy.”

Many scientists are reluctantly concluding that George W. Bush's new administration isn't as science-friendly as it first appeared. And not even the president's eagerly awaited choice of physicist John Marburger III as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has done much to assuage the critics.

Not that there's anything wrong with Marburger, director of the Energy Department's Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. In fact, he enjoys widespread respect among his colleagues. And, as a lifelong Democrat, the new director might even help the Republican administration work more smoothly with Democrats who now control the Senate, at least on science-related issues.

But even if Marburger is confirmed easily by the Senate this fall, as expected, it will take several more months before his team is in place. And that means many policy decisions—such as those on budget priorities for 2002 and 2003, on arsenic in drinking water, on what to do next about climate change, and on embryo stem-cell research—will have been made without the benefit of comprehensive advice from in-house scientific experts. It's also unclear how much Bush will really pay attention to what Marburger tells him, and the record on that score is not comforting.

The budget issue is particularly troubling. White House officials argue that the Bush budget for science is up 6 percent, but that figure does not account for inflation and includes cuts in many valuable projects within the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department. Even Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York, a Republican who has played a key role on science issues in Congress, says the administration budget for science is too low and he is “very disturbed.” And Marye Anne Fox, who advised Bush on science issues when he was governor of Texas and is now chancellor of North Carolina State University, says that, without major investments in science, “we should expect innovation and with it our competitive advantage to shift overseas.''

Also unsettling the scientific community is Bush's intention to push forward with his missile defense “shield” even though there is little scientific evidence that such a system will work. At the same time, Bush has raised profound objections to the Kyoto accord on global warming despite strong evidence that climate change is a real and growing problem. In short, the fear is that scientific arguments have little or no impact at the White House, where conservative ideology seems to trump nearly everything else. “Usually Republicans have their scientists and Democrats have their scientists,” says Hugh Gusterson, a cultural anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies American science. Gusterson told the New York Times recently: “What's extraordinary about this moment in time, on both missile defense and the greenhouse effect, is the substantial consensus against the White House policy.''

On the crucial issue of R&D, President Bush's defenders say corporations have accelerated their spending on research and development, reducing the need for government intervention. This year, the private sector is spending an estimated $180 billion on R&D, double what the federal government spends. Yet corporate America tends to emphasize shorter-term, money-making projects rather than long-range research that doesn't result in an immediate payoff. This longer-term research has led to major progress in fields ranging from physics to medicine, and that's where the government's investment would be most welcome.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans, one of the president's closest confidants, told me in an interview that Bush recognizes the importance of the technology industry, which the secretary estimates has generated one third of the economic growth over the past five years. But Evans argues that Bush's first order of business when he took over in January was to establish clear priorities, and his biggest challenge was to improve the overall economy by winning passage of a massive tax cut. With that accomplished, the administration can now focus on other challenges, such as boosting the technology sector, Evans says.

But that doesn't mean Bush will automatically support higher budgets. The best way to help the technology sector, Evans says, is to push for trade promotion authority so tech entrepreneurs can expand their markets abroad and plan for the future with more predictability. Of course, that won't satisfy many science advocates.

What changes the picture is Democratic control of the Senate. Majority Leader Tom Daschle is already working with moderate conservatives, including Vermont's Jim Jeffords, whose party switch from Republican to independent at mid-year gave the Democrats a working majority in the Senate and the power to set the agenda. This means Congress will probably increase R&D spending this fall and, more generally, provoke a major battle with the White House over the federal role in encouraging science and technology. The Democrats want more of a federal role, the White House less. This, in turn, will set the stage for a larger battle leading up to the mid-term elections in November 2002 over the best way to nurture science and technology during the Bush era.

Kenneth T. Walsh is senior White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.