New Climate in U.S. Capital Creates Challenges—and Opportunity—for Science, Experts Say at AAAS

The American science enterprise may be facing its most significant challenges in a generation, with a new Congress possibly moving to cut research spending and open investigations into the federal stimulus program and the science of climate change, speakers said in a series of presentations at AAAS.

Spending on health and environmental research could be among the targets, speakers said at the seventh annual AAAS Leadership Seminar on Science and Technology Policy. Budget reductions in those and other research areas could ripple beyond government agencies to universities, businesses, and communities nationwide. That could present a secondary challenge for the science community: defending the importance of research—and its critical role in the economy—without getting caught up in a highly polarized political atmosphere.

Though some expressed guarded optimism, speakers at the week-long seminar offered a sober view of the challenges that will confront science and engineering communities in the months ahead. Funding will be threatened and researchers may be summoned to congressional hearings. Ultimately, some predicted, the fundamental role and effectiveness of the federal government in research and development may come into question.

The AAAS Leadership Seminar on Science and Technology Policy was held from 15-19 November, and gave 38 participants a chance to hear detailed assessments of Washington science policy from officials at the White House, Congress, and federal agencies, along with think tanks and research organizations. The seminar is organized by Science and Policy Programs at AAAS.

“Our participants got a special bonus this year,” said Albert H. Teich, head of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS. “Not only did they have a chance to see how science and technology policy is made in Washington, but they were given a real-time view of the current changes in the landscape and how the some of the leaders of the S&T policy community are responding to those changes.”

There was clear consensus among seminar speakers about the near-term: It’s going to be turbulent.

David Goldston

David Goldston

Author and pundit Norman Ornstein, a specialist on the workings of Congress, said the U.S. government is “likely to see some shutdowns and a great deal of turmoil” as the 112th Congress settles in. Some new members, he said, will seek to “take a meat ax to everything Washington does.”

David Goldston, former staff director for the House Committee on Science, envisions “a

time of enormous stress for science” as a

April Burke

April Burke

new Congress convenes next year. And, he added, “it will be interesting to see whether the new members see science as an important role for government,” as it has been since World War II.

April Burke, founder of Lewis-Burke Associates, which represents science clients on Capitol Hill, agreed that there’s turbulence ahead. But, she said, scientists and science leaders can protect the science enterprise by taking a constructive approach to the emerging economic and political realities. “We’ll have a period in Congress—six months, maybe into the summer—where people will struggle to come up with a way to work together,” she said. “Eventually, they will.”

“A Little Bit of Backlash” for S&T “Elite”?

The mid-term congressional election represented a sharp change-of-course from elections that delivered both houses of Congress to the Democrats in 2006 and the presidency to Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. In the U.S. Senate this year, Democrats lost six seats to the Republicans, just barely holding onto a majority. Republicans re-took control of the House of Representatives, with a gain of 60-plus seats that was the biggest one-time advance for either party since at least 1948.

Not only does this change R&D funding prospects, speakers said, but it requires the American research community to adapt to a profoundly different environment. Scientists and engineers will have to negotiate how to respond to attacks, and they will face pressure to develop more substantive ways to demonstrate the impact of research and development spending on the economy and people’s lives.

Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, struck a somber note in assessing the implications of the election. Voters are angry, he said on the opening night of the seminar, and the new House Republicans are a reflection of that mood.

One-third of the Republican members in the new House majority will be new members, and most of them are politically inexperienced, Ornstein said. Many are allied with the Tea Party movement, and their inclination will be to slash government spending and shrink government, guided by the assumption that “all will then be well,” he said.

“Behind that,” he continued, “is a larger attitude that includes a rather dangerous viewpoint that is fairly widely shared among their voters—that Washington has been so awful, so corrupt, so out-of-control, that all you have to do is cut the waste, fraud, and abuse and we’ll never notice a thing and those deficits will just melt away.”

If Congress moves to make permanent the expiring tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, Ornstein said, that will deepen the federal deficit by an additional $4 trillion over the next decade. But because the Democrats have moved left and the Republicans have moved right, making decisions on taxes and spending potentially more complex.

Goldston, now the director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the new landscape presents a range of risks for science and engineering. Some are clearly visible: Republicans have already begun lining up behind a proposal by their House leader, U.S. Representative John Boehner of Ohio, to roll back spending to 2008 levels.

Goldston explained that science, over the shifting economic cycles of many decades, has generally held a consistent percentage of the overall federal budget. Because federal spending is likely to shrink in coming years, science funding likely will shrink with it—though perhaps not to the same degree. But in Goldston’s view, long-term federal funding might also hinge on a philosophical question that could emerge in a more conservative Congress: Should the federal government’s role in research and development be reduced?

Daniel Sarewitz

Daniel Sarewitz

“For the first time since World War II, we are facing a potentially protracted period of limited funding for science and technology,” said Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

Other threats may be less direct. Some members of Congress have suggested holding investigative hearings into how stimulus funds—intended to jump start the economy—were spent. That could include a review of science spending under the stimulus, Goldston said. And, he added, divisions in the Republican Party could result in “a little bit of civil war,” with the possibility that some of the conflict could focus on federal support for science.

Scientists do retain solid respect from the public, but in the current climate of public opinion, their interests are potentially vulnerable, said Burke, a former staffer in the Office of the Legislative Counsel of the U.S. Senate. “In science and technology, we operate in an environment that to many people looks pretty elite,” she explained. “We’re highly educated, we get to do what we want…There could be a little bit of backlash for that in the short term.”

The Risk to Cutting-Edge Health Research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget doubled under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But John Porter, who served 21 years in the House as an Illinois Republican, predicted that federal funding for health research could face threats again in the months ahead.

The environment today is reminiscent of an earlier era. When Republicans won the House in 1994, two years into Clinton’s presidency, there were proposals to cut NIH spending by 5% per year for five years, recalled Porter, now chairman of the board at Research!America, which advocates strong support for medical research. After the 1994 election, Porter rose to chair the Appropriation Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. He described his efforts—ultimately successful—to persuade Republican leaders of the importance of health research to the public and the economy.

“We’re probably facing something very similar in this Congress,” he said at the Leadership Seminar. “The House of Representatives now is going to be considerably more conservative than it was when I became chairman in 1995 and the deficit problem is considerably worse than it was then. We can all expect that what is going to happen, in the House at least, is a budget resolution that does some damage—if we let it.”

Goldston suggested that NIH might be more able to withstand the pressures than many other federal departments and agencies. “But I think the era of automatic, significant increases is probably over,” he said. “It’s not going to be boom times.”

Climate and Energy: Revised Expectations

Climate and energy could be one of the battlefield areas in the months ahead, speakers said at the Leadership Seminar. [See a related story from AAAS.org]

Jon Krosnick

Jon Krosnick

Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford University who does research on attitude formation and the psychology of political behavior, detailed extensive research showing that large majorities of Americans believe in human-caused climate change and support government action to counter it.

But many elected to Congress have rejected climate science—including some of the House members who are candidates to lead the Energy Committee. Others in the House have called for investigations focused on climate science and researchers.

“It’s not going to be pretty at all,” Goldston said.

The shifting congressional landscape all but assures that comprehensive climate and energy legislation considered in the last Congress—including cap-and-trade—is dead, Sarewitz said. But both he and Goldston concurred that profound and fundamental questions about the environment and the economy remain to be resolved.

Efforts to broadly address climate change—with new technologies, new market forces, and new costs for carbon emissions—represent the “first effort to fundamentally change the basis of the American economy since slavery.”

But transition from a relatively inexpensive and reliable source of energy—fossil fuels—to a mix that is cleaner, more sustainable, and more uncertain, is bound to be difficult, Sarewitz said. Last summer’s Gulf oil spill is just one example of the difficulties that society faces in managing its essential, but highly complex, energy technology systems.

“We have a technology system that we’re completely dependent on and that we want to change completely, in a hurry,” he said. “This is a problem for which there simply is no precedent.”

Sarewitz suggested one possible way forward: Change the focus of the policy discussion from climate to energy innovation. But, he added, if climate change is not effectively addressed, and if it accelerates, the United States and the world may find themselves having to decide how to grapple with complex and controversial geoengineering ideas to limit warming—pumping sulfite particles into the atmosphere to reflect light, for example, or drawing carbon dioxide from the air and pumping it deep into the earth for storage.

But even that reorientation toward energy policy could encounter resistance. Said Goldston: “In areas of applied science, like energy, there’s always been a philosophical debate [about the proper role of government], which is likely to be even more complex this time around.”

Science Needs a New Message

In the near term, speakers said, the increasing global competition in energy, health, and other areas may provide leverage in breaking gridlock or building bi-partisan support for new initiatives.

In Goldston’s view, lawmakers may be coaxed into constructive engagement if they see the risk of appearing “backward” in the eyes of the world.

“I call it a ‘patriotism argument,’” Porter said in a separate seminar presentation. “We lead the world in science and technology, but how long will we [continue to lead] when other countries are coming on so strongly and we are moving in reverse? It won’t last.”

Both Goldston and Sarewitz said that changes in the landscape for science policy also raise long-term concern for the relationship between science and society. Sarewitz called it an “inflection point” for the United States, a time in which the public may take a deep and critical look at its investment in science.

Science has been a crucial contributor to innovation; as evidence, Sarewitz pointed to advances driven by defense research during the Cold War era. But, he said, science today may be living off of that past glory. In recent initiatives, the results have been perceived as “disappointing, or worse.”

“A lot of things have gone wrong,” he said, “and we need to face up to them.” Enormous public investments on cancer research and nuclear waste disposal have fallen short of discovering clear-cut solutions, he said. And after 20 years of research and discussion about climate change, the politics of the issue have gotten more complicated, not less.

With the intense polarization now prevailing in Washington, elected officials all want to recruit science to support their goals. But science isn’t intended to provide answers to difficult policy decisions, Goldston said. And when researchers are drawn into that role, it increases the perception that science is just another political tool.

Science could offset that risk with data showing that R&D investment provides demonstrable benefits. For example, science asserts that basic research is a valuable investment. According to Sarewitz, though, there’s not strong evidence of that. And the “science of science policy” is only now emerging as an important field of research.

Instead, said Goldston, science and its allies usually offer a tepid argument. “Science is good, innovation is good, the U.S. is good at innovation, so we should do more science,” he said. “It’s almost that impressionistic.” That lack of supporting data could pose a problem if some in Congress press to reduce the federal role in R&D, he said.

April Burke, the Capitol Hill science advocate, said the research community must recognize its vulnerability in the changed policy landscape. There are new opportunities, she said, but only if science reconsiders its engagement with elected officials and the public.

“I want to be sure the science and technology message isn’t an old message—’value us and leave us alone’—because that’s not the way it’s going to be,” she said.

Even if the months ahead are discouraging, Burke advised that science will be best served by listening to critical assessments, adapting, and seeking constructive engagement. At a time when elected officials and budget commissions are pressing for difficult solutions to historic budget deficits, complaining is out and flexibility is in.

“There are some really serious conversations going on, and none of them call for reductions in the investment in science and technology,” she said. “So we’re in a very good spot and we have to be responsible about that.

“We don’t want to allow ourselves to be distracted,” Burke added. “I know bad things can happen in stem cells, climate change—but I know the real issue is about spending and taxes, and not about whether people believe in one area of science endeavor or another. If we’re distracted, we won’t be ready to respond and forge ahead.”

See the agenda for the 2010 AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy.

See a related story on the post-election policy environment for climate and energy policy.