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Post-Election Panel at AAAS Sees Challenges Ahead for S&T Interests
Bob Palmer, an influential science staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives, fondly recalls the morning several years ago when conservative icon Newt Gingrich spoke at a AAAS breakfast in Washington D.C. "He had the audience mesmerized," Palmer says. "He talked about science and what it could do for health care, science and what it could do for the economy, science and what it could do for international relations."
It was a "brilliant" speech, he remembersand that's high praise coming from the Democrats' staff director on the House Science Committee. "Unfortunately, it's the kind of discussion I just don't hear anymore…not in the political realm."
Palmer's sober assessment: The status of science and technology among national priorities is profoundly diminished. And his assessment was generally shared by the experts on a bi-partisan panel convened at AAAS Wednesday (1 December) to discuss the impact of the 2004 election results on federal S&T policy. The two-hour forum was a collaboration of AAAS, Research!America and the Washington Science Policy Alliance.
The panelists saw no more than a few bright spots. For example, California voters approved a dramatic $3 billion, 10-year program of research into embryonic stem cells.
Instead, the overflow audience heard a generally gloomy assessment: Budget deficits and the expense of the military action in Iraq and Afghanistan will severely restrict federal discretionary spending. Except for defense and security, funds will hold steady or decline for most federal science and technology efforts. There will be little federal support for climate change remedies or for promising human embryonic stem cell research. And among political leaders and in much of the public, science interests will find attitudes ranging from indifference to hostility.
In the months ahead, some concluded, science and technology leaders will have to take smart, practical steps to limit their risks and losses.
"All of the science groups ought to get on the same page, work off the same data and have the same message," said former U.S. Rep. John Porter, an Illinois Republican who for many years chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee for Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. And the message, he said, should focus on the importance of science and technology to the U.S. economy.
Most people in the S&T cultures "see a close relationshipand a particularly beneficial relationshipbetween science and society," said panel moderator Alan I. Leshner, AAAS's chief executive officer and executive publisher of the journal Science. "An interesting question at this point is whether society sees the relationship the same way….The core question is whether the results [of the election] portend more or fewer examples of ideology attempting to trump science."
The November election returned President George W. Bush to the White House for a second term and extended the hold of conservative Republicans on both houses of Congress.
Kathleen Frankovic, director of surveys at CBS News, suggested that many voters place moral and religious values above scientific values. "There are huge chasms based on education and religious intensity," she said.
A CBS/New York Times poll after the election found that national security and the economy were the dominant concerns, with moral values cited as the most important issue by about a quarter of voters. A third of Republican voters cited that concern, she said, as opposed to only 10 percent of Democratic voters.
But recent polling questions that explore attitudes on evolution and creationism produced more dramatic findings. Fully 55 percent of those polled rejected the science of evolution, saying God created humans in their current form. A separate Gallup poll found that nearly half45 percentbelieve that God created humans in their current form within the last 10,000 years, Frankovic said.
Among college graduates, "well over a third" believe in the creationist view, she said, and even among those with post-graduate education, 32 percent share that belief.
"This is a very extremenot extreme, but a very intense belief among Americans," she said.
That intensity is also manifest in the outcome of the election, panelists said.
"The moderate Democrats that often provided some kind of bridge or grounds for compromise between the two parties are largely, as a result of this election, gone," said Porter, now the chairman-elect of Research!America, a not-for-profit, membership-supported health education and advocacy group.
"Probably the most important thing to realize for all of us," Porter added, "is that Republican moderates, especially in the Senate, have lost a very great amount of their power. They are substantially weakened."
During the campaign, President Bush's opponent, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, had received support from a range of scientists and S&T organizations; many criticized the incumbent for valuing politics and appealing to religious groups at the expense of science on some of the most crucial issues of the day. A group of 48 Nobel laureates in chemistry, medicine and physics endorsed the challenger. At a AAAS forum before the election, Bush proxy Bob Walker, formerly chair of the House Science Committee, warned that such sharply partisan engagement by scientists could "engender a push-back" from the president's allies.
Palmer, who is leaving his House staff post, said that's already happening and is evident in some recent budget decisions. "I don't think one has to conjure up a conspiracy that there were people…out to get science," he said. But with funds tight and priorities geared to other matters, "people may not be looking to hurt you actively, but they're not looking to help you."
Earlier this year, Congress approved substantial increases in the research and development budgets for defense and homeland security, bringing total federal R&D investment to record highs for the budget year that began 1 October. But for most other science and technology research areas, funding in the 2005 budget increases only slightly, if at all, and some were subject to cuts. According to a recent AAAS analysis, the challenging R&D picture is likely to continue in 2006and beyondfor most federal agencies.
The current political reality makes it unlikely that the federal government will expand its involvement in or funding of embryonic stem cell research, panelists said. And while President Bush's moon and Mars exploration programs survived in the 2005 budget assembled by Congressional leaders, Palmer questioned whether it could win the 218 votes needed for passage if it comes to the House floor for a separate vote next year.
Given the current climate, Porter, Palmer and many in the audience were preoccupied with what S&T leaders could do to advance their interests in the months ahead. Porter, especially, seemed hopeful that a pragmatic course could pay dividends.
"Science can, in my judgment, be sold to this administration and this Congress," he said. "I suggest that the best way to do that is to recount to them, over and over again…that the economic destiny of America lies in science and technology, in science and research. And if we don't invest in research, and we don't inspire our children and don't educate them for the competition that is out there… [other countries] will really begin to eat our lunch."
From the floor, former U.S. Rep. Paul Rogers, an influential Florida Democrat who served as chair of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment from 1971-79, urged that S&T interests work closely with business to advance the cause of science. "We think it is time now to have more affiliation with industry, because industry has more impact in the Congress," said Rogers, chair of the Research!America board.
Still, optimism at the forum was guarded, at best.
"I take away from some of the discussion today a somewhat scary sense that we are losing ground, rather than gaining ground…in terms of where science sits in society," said Leshner, the AAAS CEO, in closing remarks. "And I hope that, over time, we can come up with effective strategies to try to raise the valance again of science as a positive part of life, and not just as something that leads to economic gain."
Edward W. Lempinen
2 December 2004