A Congressional Perspective on S&T Issues for FY 1999
From conferences on science funding over the past decade or so, one could conclude that the scientific community is suffering from some sort of bipolar or manic-depressive disorder. Through most of the 1990s, when things really weren't that bad, we saw all sorts of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth about declining budgets, and even some thoughts that the scientific community might have to change some day. But now, when things look at least as bleak as ever, there is a kind of euphoria. Scientists seem to think everything is taken care of. The Administration has proposed a sizable budget, Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) has decided that science should double, and everything is fine. But that emotional reaction is at least as misguided as the earlier one.
Why do I say that things were better than they seemed in the 1990s? Obviously the scenario wasn't entirely rosy even then. Budgets were not booming, except for the National Institutes of Health, and slightly less so for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Although new interest in, and resolve for, cost cutting and budget cutting characterized the middle of the decade, science programs were not targeted, except for a few narrow programs that managed (generally) to survive the targeting.
In fact, there were all sorts of congressional professions of support for R&D. Indeed, science fared much better than other areas of domestic discretionary spending. And that happened even though any kind of political science analysis would lead you to believe the opposite would occur. After all, the scientific community does not function like a typical, successful interest group. You don't see a lot of campaign ads focusing on science spending, for example. Science has managed to survive despite lacking the clout and interest that some of its competitors can bring to bear. To take just one somewhat trivial (but telling) indicator, I have never seen a Science Committee hearing that filled three rooms to overflowing, which is what happened when the highway bill was marked up.
Science has done fairly well in the 1990s, even though, obviously, squeezes and readjustments have been felt. But now the scientific community seems to be thinking, "That's all behind us. We don't have to readjust. The budget is going to come out just fine." But the situation has not changed, at least not for the better.
First, although there is still broad consensus that science and R&D are good, the balanced budget agreement places real constraints on spending. The caps for discretionary spending decline every year for the rest of the budget agreement. (And I think there is virtually no chance of those being lifted. One of the few things that moderate and conservative House Republicans agree on is that they are all deficit hawks. The moderates are as opposed to touching the surplus and raising the spending caps as the most archconservative members of the Republican Conference. So those spending caps are real. Raising them is not an option.)
Second, the chances of tobacco money going to science and R&D are very close to zero. The chance of even getting a tobacco settlement is remote, although not impossible. But the Senate would like to use that money for Medicare and other health care programs. And a large number of House Republicans want to see a tax-neutral bill. In other words, any revenues that cigarette taxes or other parts of the agreement bring in will be offset with reductions in other taxes. If there is spending, it will be health-related spending. The probability that tobacco money is going to be used for a range of domestic discretionary programs, even something as popular as science, is very small.
The other offsets in the President's budget are either unidentifiable or have their own problems. For example, the Administration has proposed repealing a Veterans Administration ruling 2 years ago that smoking-related illnesses could be considered service-connected. The veterans, not surprisingly, have a lobbying campaign to keep that ruling in effect. I always remind people that the veterans got Ronald Reagan (of all people) to create a new Cabinet agency. So you are not dealing with pikers here.
Moreover, that money has been spent a million times over, including in the Senate highway bill. It is this sort of voracious appetite that is going to be very hard to appease. That means, basically, that the President's budget is fiction, though perhaps a romance novel would be more accurate: You read the book, you feel good, and then you put it down and you have to go back to real life. His budget is based on revenues that are not there, revenues people who support science programs are not going to be able to use. And it's not clear where the shortfall will be made up.
That's just the outlook staying within the balanced budget agreement. In the House, at least, there's a lot of interest in cutting beyond the budget agreement. It's not clear that will happen; there is still a raging debate within the House.
Even within the budget agreement, because of the highway bill and because the caps are lower for FY 1999 than they were for FY 1998, Congress has to find at least $33 billion to cut from domestic discretionary spending just to maintain the status quo. And there's been talk in the House of a budget resolution that reduces domestic spending as much as $154 billion below the caps over the next 5 years. Even the Senate budget resolution, which is relatively tame in terms of sticking with the budget agreement, does not add up to the President's numbers on science. (This happens even though the Senate majority leader said they are going to cut more spending than the Senate passed because they want to have a tax cut at least double the $30 billion that the Senate assumed.) In many areas, including the outyears for NSF, the Senate resolution is considerably below the President's numbers. Senate members didn't have "free money" to play around with because they assume that the tobacco money, if it materializes, will go to health issues.
So we have a real problem in terms of what's going to happen. Although the Senate budget resolution has language from Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Phil Gramm, and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) saying we believe that civilian science spending should double over the next 5 years, the numbers just aren't there.
That is not a sign that Congress is anti-science and does not support R&D programs. In fact, given the budget realities, Congress has been remarkably supportive of these programs. But this situation should lead to a very important conclusion that is always one of my themes: The science budget isn't driven by science, or at least not exclusively by science. There's a big budget out there, with many unrelated issues that impinge on science.
Sometimes when the scientific community participates in budget discussions, it's easy to talk about entitlements as if they are an evil bag of crawling things that we are afraid to open, that has grown without anybody noticing. But in reality, we're mostly talking about Medicare and Social Security. These are not programs that just sneaked up on us. They are not programs about which we can say, "They are not really helping anybody and, surely, we can get rid of them as soon as somebody notices how they are growing."
In short, this budget predicament we are in is very difficult, with no obvious way out. It's important that people realize that the science budget is only one part of overall government decision making. There is no sectoral attack on science (quite the contrary).
How should the scientific community react in the face of all this? I hope it will not react by telling students and children not to go into science, which has been one pattern that's developed when bad budget news comes out. We can do several constructive things. (These are easier for me to say than do because they put the onus on members of the scientific community rather than on me.)
The first one is easiest: Get out there and lobby. Let me explain what I mean by that and what I don't mean. Sometimes people use the euphemism "educating" when they talk about lobbying. I don't like that because it implies, "Everyone would think as I do if they only knew what I knew." This is a good way to get into trouble when you are lobbying. The problem is not just communication. Often you hear people call for lobbying with the implication that if only legislators heard you, all of these problems would be taken care of. I think the budget charts make it clear that that is not the case.
The fact is that support for science is broad but we don't know how deep. Congress, especially the House, has a lot of turnover. With all the debate on term limits, the re-election rate is still very high. But because of retirements, the number of experienced Members of the House (people who have been there more than 4 years) is extremely small. It's under half, if I remember correctly. There's a lot of turnover and there is more to come. It would be foolhardy, to put it mildly, to assume that everyone coming in is automatically going to know and understand the federal role in science and be supportive. New members are entering a body with that general atmosphere, but you can't assume that individuals will support it.
The one piece of lobbying advice I always give is to lobby back home. It's fun to come to Washington and be the 80th person to walk through a Congressman's door in the last hour, but that is not the most effective way to lobby, especially in the House. (The Senate is different.) House Members go home often. They really are interested in district activities. It's very important to get Members to your campuses and to your companies so they can see what happens there and why the federal government has a role. Don't assume that Members know this. In that sense lobbying truly is an educational function. And education is best done when your only goal is to educatebefore you have to ask for something specific. You have failed part of your civic responsibility if you don't know Members of Congress or their staffs, or if they do not think of you (or someone in your company or on your campus) as a leader in the community whose advice they want when difficult decisions come up.
Second, if you have a Congressman or Congresswoman on campus, you should indicate that you realize there are students on your campus. It is possible sometimes to talk to academics lobbying in Washington without getting the sense that a student has ever crossed their minds, much less the portals of their institution.
The Carnegie Commission report that just came out is one more illustration of a point that my boss and I have been making for years, which is that for most Members of Congress (and for most members of the public), the nexus with academic institutions is the students. Yet, when you listen to some discussions about how the public doesn't understand what is happening inside academic institutions, it sounds as though you are talking about the Federal Reserve Board or something. Students are coming out of these institutions every year, and academic institutions are ultimately judged by the students they graduate.
I would also point out that in most House offices (especially if the Member does not have a committee responsibility involving science), the staff persons recommending how the Member should vote probably left your institutions only a year or so ago. If the only thing a staffer knows about research is, "Oh, yeah, that's why I couldn't see that professor," that can have an impact.
The third action you need to take is a little trickier. The interaction that Members of Congress have with science and the scientific community is often on difficult issues in which scientists are asked to give adviceor think they have been asked to give advice. Environmental issues are foremost among these. (I may have an exaggerated sense of this because I spend a lot of time on environmental issues.) But matters like the debate over climate change and the Environmental Protection Agency's new air standards have an impact on what people think about science. It is important that such issues be used as opportunities to make contact. That's another reason why you should have constant contact with Members back home. You don't want Members to have an abstract idea about scientists. You want Members, when they hear "scientists," to think of real people, in their own home area.
The key is to be very clear on what science is and what policy is. I think it's very important that scientists make policy recommendations, but they need to say where the science ends and where the policy recommendation begins. On the clean air standards, I thought the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee did a very good job. They said, "This is what we know from science. Now you, Congress, need to decide at exactly what level you want the standards set. That is a policy decision." While Members of Congress very jealously guard their prerogatives, they weren't happy to hear that this was being thrown back at them, but that was the right way to approach the issue.
Scientists usually think about science in terms of their discipline or subdiscipline. Members of Congress usually think of science as an integrated, undifferentiated whole, except in terms of budget funding. Members are not used to hearing (as they must to understand the clean air debates) that epidemiologists and toxicologists have different approaches to exploring the world. But Members need to become more familiar with those sorts of divisions. The underlying point is that these debates at the intersection of science and policy also affect, in the long run, the sense people have of the scientific community, the scientific process, and the academic community. They also have an impact on Congress' willingness to fund science.
I have two thoughts in conclusion. One comes from a gardening accident I had recently: You can try to cut one thing and end up cutting something else. When Congress does that, you bleed, not them. That's the way the budget process works. The (not necessarily obvious) corollary of that is that while there is no reason to panic, there is no reason to celebrate either. I think that is the sensible reaction to the budget process at this point.
David Goldston is legislative director for Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). This article is based on remarks delivered at the 23rd Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy, held April 29May 1, 1998, in Washington, DC.