Science and engineering research have traditionally had bipartisan support in Congress, but bipartisanship is becoming increasingly hard to find. As a result, that support has become endangered, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) told the 2012-2013 class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows during their orientation. But, he thinks they can help reverse that trend.
“There should be nothing partisan about keeping America as the preeminent contributor to science and engineering research and development. It should be the sort of goal that all of us could share,” Bingaman said. “You’ll be well-positioned to facilitate bipartisan discussions that we need to be having on a daily basis about how we can continue to advance science and engineering innovation in the national interest.”
Scientists and engineers chosen to be AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows spend one or two years working at an executive branch agency or in Congressional offices or committees to contribute to policymaking. Most members of Congress have no background in science, Bingaman said, which means they rely upon the contributions of their staff and the Fellows. This fall marks the 40th class of Fellows; Bingaman has served 30 years in the Senate, and over that time he has hosted 32 Fellows in his office and on the staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs.
The problem that national science and technology research programs are facing, Bingaman said, is that there are now “substantial numbers” of members of Congress who believe that any new investment supporting research needs to be paid for by cutting research somewhere else.
As a result, projects that have previously had strong support from Congress may not be continued.
One example he cited was NASA’s Mars rover, which is currently using a “ChemCam” that was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory to analyze Martian rocks, in addition to other components developed at national research facilities. However, NASA’s planetary exploration budget is facing a $300 million reduction for fiscal year 2013, which is about 21% of its total budget, Bingaman said.
“Follow-on missions to Mars that would be conducted jointly with the European Space Agency in 2016 and 2018 have already been shelved,” he said. “What I am describing is a somewhat optimistic budget scenario for NASA,” especially if the automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” are allowed to take effect in January 2013.
“In my view, the increase of knowledge is not a zero-sum game,” Bingaman said. “… [I]ncreased support for research and technology has paid off in new industries and in jobs for Americans, and it’s made contributions to our economy that have far exceeded the cost to the government.”
Bingaman highlighted recent examples of bipartisan support for science and technology. After President George H. W. Bush supported building new research facilities at Department of Energy laboratories, he said, the program continued with President Bill Clinton’s support. President George W. Bush signed the America COMPETES Act (America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science), which called for high levels of research funding, an act that Congress and President Barack Obama reauthorized. Obama has also added new support for scientific research and facility upgrades in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
“Unfortunately, in the past few years, this bipartisan consensus on [supporting science and research funding] has eroded, as has the bipartisan consensus on a lot of issues,” Bingaman said.
Climate change legislation is an example of one such issue. “We had some bipartisan support to deal with climate change,” before the 2010 elections, he said. However, in that election, several Republicans who supported the legislation were challenged in primaries for being too moderate, and some were defeated, he said. As a result, “we have virtually no bipartisan support to deal with climate change in this Congress.”
After Bingaman concluded his remarks, a Fellow asked him what could be done to improve the partisan atmosphere in Congress. “I have no great solution,” said Bingaman, who is retiring at the end of this year. “I think it can be resolved only when the partisanship in the country is resolved,” since the Congress represents people’s views from across the country.
The senior Senator from New Mexico did have an opportunity to demonstrate his own ability to bridge both sides on a divisive issue, however. Asked by a Fellow which he preferred, red chile or green, Bingaman explained to the audience: “In New Mexico, everyone has to choose—do they want red chile or green? That’s a difficult question,” he said before finally giving his answer, to laughter and applause: “I—I go back and forth.”
Despite the challenging atmosphere for policymaking, AAAS Fellows said they are optimistic about what they will gain from their coming experiences. “I’m looking forward to seeing another side of science,” said Rebecca Frederick, a biologist who will be working at the National Institutes of Health’s policy office. “It’s the big picture, how the institutions guide the research, even though it’s initiated by the investigators.”
While research funding is facing cuts, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows program continues to grow. The 2012-2013 class is the largest the program has welcomed, with 279 Fellows sponsored by 32 societies that are partnering with AAAS, as well as 15 Executive Branch agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of State, the United States Agency for International Development, the National Institutes of Health, and others.
“As the numbers show, support for the program has grown every year,” among both the partner societies and the federal agencies, said Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. “Bringing S&T information and analysis to the policymaking process is perceived as important for the nation. That’s a wonderful message.”