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Author and Pundit Thomas E. Mann Cautiously "Bullish" on U.S. Science Policy
Thomas E. Mann
Author and pundit Thomas E. Mann told a AAAS audience that the watershed 2006 congressional elections may open the way for new progress on science issues, but cautioned that deep political divisions and budget problems still pose significant challenges.
Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the mid-term elections that installed new Democratic majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives sent a message to the political establishment that voters are tired of ideology and partisan warfare and instead want results and accountability.
"I am actually pretty bullish on the broad environment for science, on scientific research, on science education...," Mann said on 13 November. "I see a greater willingness on the part of [incoming] Democratic committee chairs and subcommittee chairs to listen to, be open to, a range of scientific issues. I think the climate has improved markedly."
Meanwhile, he said, there are signs that leaders of both parties may achieve success by taking a more pragmatic, less ideological approach to science-related issues. For example, he said, front-runners for the U.S. presidential election in 2006—including U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Arizona), among others--are seen as moderates who take seriously the threat of global climate change.
Mann spoke for more than an hour on the opening day of the annual AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy, which brought 35 scientists, educators, industry officials and others to Washington, D.C., for a week of presentations and discussions on the practical realities of how U.S. S&T policy is made and carried out. Later Monday, veteran Washington Post science reporter Rick Weiss said that while Democrats might bring new energy and interest to science-related issues in the next two years, their impact would likely be limited by budget constraints.
The annual Leadership Seminar is a compressed version of the renowned two-week orientation session given every year to AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows before they begin their year-long assignments in government staffs and agencies. The Seminar brings in an array of front-line experts who offer an on-the-ground, behind-the-scenes look at how S&T policy is made.
"Tom Mann's talk was a superb opening for the Seminar," noted Al Teich, director of Science and Policy at AAAS and principal organizer of the Seminar. "It, and the others in the weeklong session gave participants not just a sense of how things stand today, but a real street-level appreciation for how policy is made in Washington."
Mann holds the W. Averell Harriman Chair and is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. He is the author or editor of many books; most recently, he has joined with Norman J. Ornstein on The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.
In his AAAS talk, Mann described the 2006 vote as a "tidal wave election," one that inundated a system in which congressional districts often were drawn to favor Republicans and to protect incumbents. For the first time since 1922, he said, not a single seat in the House or Senate that had been Democratic before the election was lost. More than half of the House Republican seats won by Democrats had posted tallies over 60% for the GOP in 2004.
In those totals, Mann saw "a strong negative referendum" on President Bush and the Republican Congress. Iraq was a central issue, he said, but there were two other critical dimensions to the Democratic victory.
First, he said, was voter disenchantment with incompetence. While Iraq is important in that sentiment, the federal government's failed response to Hurricane Katrina "played an extremely important role in that judgment about incompetence," he said. "It left a mark on the public psyche and pretty much eviscerated what was left of the president's sterling image after 9/11."
Second, Mann felt that "Americans came to deeply resent the way in which politics and governance were being conducted" under Republican leadership. The traditional responsibility of representing the people, of asserting oversight and accountability, and engaging in debate and compromise, were neglected or abandoned, he said. Instead, congressional leaders "bent the system to enhance their ability to deliver for the president."
"It was a sorry state," Mann said. "It got ugly in its tone, its style, and frankly in the ethics of governance. We really saw develop a culture of corruption."
This month's election gave voters recognition that they could change a system that's structured to avoid change—and that could have "a major impact on our society," he added. At the same time, "millions of people abroad who have become quite critical of American government as a supposed paragon of democracy saw there is still a capacity for change. I think that bodes well for us."
In many districts and states, Democrats won by appealing to moderates; Mann suggested that those results could remind both parties that there's an important political niche for centrists and pragmatism and a "rationale for paying attention to the median voter."
With a Republican in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress, the next two years might feature gridlock on many issues. Gridlock is not a bad thing, Mann said, if it limits the excesses that can result from one-party rule. The split power also can create a productive climate in which substantive bargaining and compromise are possible.
That may be underway already on Iraq. The parties could also come together on initiatives designed to enhance the U.S. climate for innovation and global S&T competitiveness, Mann predicted. Already the restrictions on visas for foreign scholars and students have eased. Congress might now pass a bill to encourage expanding embryonic stem cell research, even though the president has opposed such measures in the past.
"I don't see that changing in the short term," Mann said, "but I do see it setting up the change over time. And I see the kind of ideological attacks on 'funny-sounding' scientific projects dying of its own weight, being countered by Democratic subcommittee and committee chairmen.
"We've drained the swamp on Capitol Hill of some of its ideological fervor," he continued, "and now we're in a better position to assess where investment in basic sciences ought to go and how much more needs to be committed to them. Other, smaller things—the renewal of the R&D tax credit--will almost certainly happen and there will be serious talk again about science education. I think the prospects of a collaboration on areas like this are good."
There may also be an opening to reform the practice of "earmarking" billions of dollars in funds for special interest and local district projects. Mann said the process had gone "completely out of control" in recent years. "The science community has fallen into this, and the higher education community, big-time, and some soul-searching needs to take place here as to how they respond to this new environment."
Mann's optimism was tempered. With expensive military campaigns contributing to deep budget deficits, efforts to advance new programs face "huge financial constraints," he said. There may be political constraints as well, he added, with both sides showing early signs that they might abandon the hopes for bipartisan cooperation expressed in the first hours after the vote.
He suggested that prospects could turn on whether, leading up to the 2008 election, the two parties recognize the value of courting moderates by seeking practical solutions to significant problems.
"We have seen the first hints of a rejection of ...an extreme program for governing," he said. "So that's a start. Now politicians sense, 'We'd better be careful, we'd better not be quite as partisan, we'd better be more open and fair-minded.' If that gets reinforced, if they get rewarded for that, they'll keep doing it.... If we get different incentives for them to think they could win playing a different game, that would have a positive effect."
Weiss, the Washington Post reporter, spoke to the Leadership Seminar participants later that day after a dinner at the National Press Club, and he underscored some of the points made by Mann. He told the AAAS seminar that the Bush administration had stalled action on issues such as climate change by taking "great advantage of uncertainty"—or perceived uncertainty—among voters.
While Democrats are likely to exercise more aggressive oversight of executive initiatives and to offer ambitious legislation on issues like climate change and energy policy, Weiss said, he shared Mann's sense of the obstacles.
For example, he explained, proponents may be able to build support for initiatives such as increasing the budget of the National Science Foundation. But, he said, House Democrats will still be far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto on possible legislation to advance embryonic stem cell research.
Edward W. Lempinen
21 November 2006