Congress is strongly committed to research and development spending, but historic budget deficits will require an intensive cost-consciousness and compromise from scientists, U.S. Representative Lamar Smith told a AAAS audience.
The federal government has a crucial role in innovation through R&D, Smith said at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, and the space program and efforts to combat cyber-attacks should be two priorities. But, he warned, recent levels of deficit spending are not sustainable, and he suggested that the research community and its advocates must adjust their expectations accordingly.
“Be prepared to negotiate and compromise when advocating for science and technology legislation or congressional funding for science agencies,” Smith said. Still, he added: “You can take confidence in knowing that there is broad bipartisan support for federal research and development funding, which comprises of course much too small a percentage of our overall budget.”
U.S. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) told the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy that investment in research and development enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.While Smith is a staunch fiscal conservative, his talk offered several surprises: not only firm support for federal R&D, but strong backing for bi-partisan legislative solutions and even open admiration for the legislative style of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and quintessential liberal.
The 37th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy convened in Washington, D.C., on 26-27 April, with more than 400 elected officials, government and business leaders, researchers, foreign embassy staff, educators, and journalists attending an in-depth, two-day survey of current issues.
This year’s Forum, organized by the AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs, ranged widely, from the policy landscape for start-up tech firms to human research subjects and new insights into voter psychology. But the twin challenges of U.S. budget stress and political gridlock were a central theme, with sessions exploring the potential impact of massive R&D budget cuts and the need to reform the federal budget-making process.
Smith, a Texas Republican who district includes portions of San Antonio and Austin, is one of the most influential members of the House of Representatives. He is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Committees on Science, Space, and Technology, and Homeland Security.
Last September, after an effort of some seven years, patent reform legislation that he co-sponsored with U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) was signed into law—the first overhaul of the nation’s patent system in some 60 years. The measure was designed in part to address a backlog of 1.2 million patent applications and an average three-year delay in process. Both Smith and Leahy were named a Policymaker of the Year by Politico, the online and printed news publication.
Innovation is an engine for U.S. economic development and growth, Smith said at the AAAS Forum. Scientists and engineers make up only 4% of the nation’s workforce, he said, but science and engineering account for 50% to 85% of economic growth.
The Smith-Leahy America Invents Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama, hints at the important role for government in setting the rules for competition—and how the process of innovation becomes inefficient when government rules are ineffective. At other times, Smith said, government R&D is essential because the risks are too great—and profits too uncertain—for private industry.
“The government has a very large role and a very appropriate role,” he said in response to a question from the audience. He continued: “There are many instances where we could privatize certain industries. There are many instances where government slows down innovation. [But] in the case of research and development, I don’t know how else it’s going to get done in a capitalistic society, a free market system that I support, because if you don’t have the possibility of profits, you’re not going to necessarily have the private sector incentive or involvement.
“So I think there are some areas, particularly in research and development, where the government plays a very, very prominent role.”
Innovators also need to be protected from cyber-attacks, and there, too, federal research has a role, Smith said. Home-grown hackers and others from a variety of nations, especially Russia and China, pose a substantial threat, he said, adding that cyber attacks on the federal government have grown by 680% in the past five years.
“Cyber crimes risk our personal finances, proprietary business information and national security know-how,” he told the Forum audience. “Hackers have sought to physically damage our air traffic control system, Department of Defense and NASA satellites, and of course our national electrical grid, as well.”
Another key area for government investment is space exploration, and Smith expressed strong concern that the end of the shuttle program was a practical and symbolic setback for U.S. dominance in space.
The end of the shuttle program was initiated under President George W. Bush; Obama’s space strategy has been to shift some routine near-Earth space work to private industry while the government develops next-generation “heavy-lift” and propulsion systems, including research into new engines, new propellants, and advanced combustion processes.
To Smith, that creates a “huge gap.” It forces the U.S. to pay Russia about $60 million for each U.S. astronaut transported to International Space Station—a payment that he said “embarrassed” him and many others.
“Americans are coming to the realization that we have lost something important with the retirement of the space shuttle,” Smith said. “I just don’t like to see us pulling back and that’s what makes me a little bit concerned about the future of NASA… that’s not the role of a leader in space to be buying seats from other countries.
“How much is leadership in space worth?” he asked. “Our nation spent as much on the stimulus bill in 2009 as the entire NASA budget for the last 54 years.”
But in response to a question from the audience—about the Super Conducting Super Collider planned for Texas until it fell victim to budget pressures in 1993—Smith suggested that selling such big-ticket science in today’s Congress is “a heavy lift.”
Over the past two years, the federal government has been borrowing 42 cents on every dollar it spends, and that, Smith said, is the road to insolvency. “So because of a general recognition that we’ve got to either increase revenue or stop spending so much, that has had sort of a dampening effect, I think, on any large expenditure,” he said. “And that, for good or for bad, would also apply” to major science projects.
For scientists and others working to Congress to shape science policy, those financial pressures may create even more pressure to build coalitions and compromise. Smith cited Kennedy as a model worthy of emulation.
When Kennedy was pursuing a legislative initiative, the Texas lawmaker said, “he was always satisfied with half a loaf. That’s how he got so much done. But the minute he passed a half a loaf, he would be right back trying to get the rest or another slice or two, and that’s why he was able to accomplish so much.
“So I would say, ‘Don’t over-reach. Don’t be greedy. Compromise—talk to the other side, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, and try to come up with an approach that’s bipartisan and bicameral.”
The lawmaking process is often compared to the making of sausage, but Smith said he prefers the bread-baking metaphor.
“Sometimes half a loaf is better than none and even a single slice beats going hungry,” he said. “The poet Robert Browning once said, ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.’ That may work in many walks of life, but over-reaching in politics often leaves you with a fist full of air.”
Watch a video of U.S. Representative Lamar Smith speaking at the 2012 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.
See the full Forum program.
See more AAAS.org coverage of this year’s Forum.