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On Politics

SQUEEZE ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

- By Kenneth T. Walsh

When President Bush took office, many people questioned his commitment to science and technology. Would he support more funding for research and development? For the National Science Foundation? For improving education in science and math? For recruiting more teachers in those fields?

Now the answers are clear. With the economy in the doldrums, the federal government has gone from running a surplus of $236 billion in fiscal 2000 to running a massive deficit, estimated at $455 billion in fiscal 2003. Just as important, there is no will in Washington to make the hard choices necessary to balance the budget. Few legislators want to do what it takes—massively increase taxes, slash big-ticket spending, or come up with some combination of the two.

As a result, many federal programs will be starved for funds. And that means science and technology programs are again vulnerable. Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and leading congressional advocate for science and technology, says, “All science and nonscience programs will suffer. There clearly is a fiscal crisis that's brought on by the deficits....It's going to eat everybody's lunch, not just science.”

Many of the final spending decisions have yet to be made. But Bush's budget requests serve as a good indicator of where the GOP majority is headed. After the House last year authorized a doubling of the National Science Foundation budget over five years, Bush requested only $5.5 billion for NSF in 2004, $900 million less than the amount previously authorized. This is particularly troubling because the NSF has long been a leader in producing trailblazing science.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency's R&D budget was targeted for a 6 percent decrease. The administration has recommended virtually no increase for research by the Department of Energy. And federal basic and applied research would go up only 1.5 percent from ‘03 to ‘04 in the Bush budget request.

Bush and Republican congressional leaders show a clear preference for defense-related research and development. Fifty-five percent of all R&D funding in Bush's budget request is for the Pentagon. This may be understandable because of Bush's emphasis on national security and fighting the war on terrorism. But it is also short-sighted, in the eyes of congressional critics, because other forms of R&D are geared to more general applications and are subject to a more intense peer review, which produces better science. “The return on investment on R&D might be 40 percent, it might be 60 percent,” Holt told Prism. “Whatever it is, it's damn good and we shouldn't be skimping....It's important to point out that it's not all about money, either. A lot has to do with the climate we need, to work on educating policy makers including members of Congress and others in how science is done.” He noted, for example, that Bush's policy of limiting stem-cell research “can have a chilling effect on research.”

Adds a senior staffmember for a House leader: “There are things government can do to encourage research without just increasing funding.” As Nicholas Thompson has written in The Washington Monthly, “Bush favors investments in scientific research for the military, healthcare, and other areas that garner strong public and industry support. Indeed, the White House quickly points to such funding increases whenever its attitude toward science is questioned. But for an administration that has boosted spending in a great number of areas [in the past], more money for science is less telling than how the Bush administration acts when specific items on its agenda collide with scientific evidence or research needs. In almost all of those cases, the scientists get tuned out.” Among the examples cited by Thompson: research indicating that human activity contributes to climate change, a notion about which Bush is deeply skeptical, and scientific support for therapeutic cloning, which Bush opposes.

“George W. Bush embodies the modern GOP's attitude toward science,” Thompson writes. “He hails from a segment of the energy industry that when it comes to global warming considers science an obstacle to growth. Bush and his senior advisers appear to believe that most scientists lean to the Democrats, so they aren't worth courting and quite possibly aren't worth listening to in formulating policy. If true, this is a dangerous attitude.”

 

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

 
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