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AAAS Leadership Seminar: Political Polarization and “Fiscal Cliff” Create Deep Worries for Science

Despite the re-election of a pro-science president and broad bipartisan support for science in Congress, research and development is facing historic budget and political challenges that could restrain the U.S. research enterprise for the next generation, analysts said recently at AAAS.

Some sort of reduction in funding for research seems likely, even if a way is found to avoid the “fiscal cliff” and deep, across-the-board cuts required by sequestration, they said. And even if the immediate threats can be avoided, there are financial, ideological, and structural reasons to believe that science and technology will have to negotiate a difficult policy landscape for years to come.

“This will put additional pressure on research and development, and some of the areas that involve science,” said author and political analyst Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Without adequate research funding, Ornstein added, “there is a real danger” that universities are not going to be able to continue to function as they have in the past.


Norman Ornstein | All Photos by Bob Roehr

Careers in science and technology will become less attractive, “and our great comparative advantage in new and cutting-edge research will be damaged as well. That is not nearly as significant a part of the dialogue as it clearly ought to be.”


Ornstein was one of the many influential analysts that offered an insider’s view of the post-election climate for federally funded research during the weeklong AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy.

The seminar was held 12-16 November, even as some congressional races remained too close to call. It offered a small group of participants a condensed version of the orientation program for AAAS S&T Policy Fellows who spend a year in Washington, said Stephen D. Nelson, AAAS senior advisor on science and policy, who coordinates the seminar.

“Participants get to hear directly from a series of policy ‘insiders’ who can provide first-hand information and perspectives on how things work in Washington,” Nelson said. “We intentionally cap the number of participants at around 35 people to preserve a smaller, more interactive atmosphere.”

Sequestration: “A Guillotine Ready to Drop”

Even before election results were certified, the political focus of Washington had shifted to the so-called fiscal cliff, and that was reflected in the discussion at the Leadership Seminar. The cliff is a series of expiring tax cuts that would raise taxes for almost every American household and business, as well as automatic budget cuts resulting from sequestration. Many economists have warned that failure to address those issues in the coming weeks could push the nation back into recession.

Sequestration was, in essence, Congress’ way of forcing itself to resolve spending, revenue and related issues by creating the threat of massive cuts in defense, R&D, and social programs. Under a 2011 deal to increase the nation’s debt limit, sequestration would impose an 8.4%, across-the-board cut in discretionary spending over five years, including $58 billion for R&D, effective on 2 January—unless Congress and the White House could agree on an alternate plan.

It is “an outcome so unpalatable to everybody—a guillotine ready to drop unless you act,” said Ornstein. It will be “mindless, across-the-board cuts that would wreak havoc on our economy and our government.”

“The only thing the agencies are going to be able to do at the end of the day is cut everything equally,” added Christopher T. Hill, professor emeritus of public policy and technology at George Mason University. “There isn’t any time to fix this; we’re already one-third of the way through the fiscal year.” Under sequestration, Hill explained, a letter would go out to grantees and contractors taking back authority to spend.

For Ornstein, even if Congress is able to get beyond that formulaic approach of sequestration, the commitment to a reduction in spending in this era of austerity means that appropriations will become “a series of trade-offs in a zero-sum game.”

Chris Hill

The Place of Science in “Tribal” Politics

Partisan polarization has for years stood in the way of lawmakers resolving fundamental issues on the level of federal revenue and expenditures. At the AAAS seminar, analysts suggested that this gridlock was unlikely to change anytime soon.

Politics has become “more tribalism now—if you’re for it, we’re against it, even if we were for it yesterday,” Ornstein said. It is spreading from politicians in Washington, D.C., to the body politic itself, buttressed by “tribal media” that preys upon the fears of a particular audience to reinforce existing worldviews, without offering real alternative perspectives or balance.

“Interwoven in the culture now, especially of the Republican Party, is a strong anti-scientific bias that is not going away,” he warned. Climate change has become a litmus test for Republican candidates with national aspirations, and in many congressional districts, Ornstein asserted, “you have to pretty much say it is a hoax.” That makes discussion, let alone compromise, difficult.

Support for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health used to be broadly based and nonpolitical, said Hill, “but fissures are appearing in that bipartisan support.”

Polling shows that “opinions about scientific facts sharply divide by partisan affiliation” and those divisions increasingly are linked to support for other non-scientific issues, Hill argued. That raises the risk that science and technology advocates will fight for their issues along partisan lines. “That [linkage] is not good for science,” Hill cautioned, “and we are heading down that direction.”

Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, offered an example from the November election— the letter and advertisements by 68 Nobel Prize winners on behalf of President Barack Obama’s reelection.

“It is a really dangerous sign that science is becoming a partisan issue, something that it wasn’t [as recently as] the mid-1990s,” he said.

“What they are beginning to say is that if the Republicans are the party that carries the strongest legitimacy on national defense and security, the Democrats have adopted a similar credibility and legitimacy around science. I don’t think that is good for science. I think we are going to see increased politicization of debates about the science budget itself.”

Daniel Sarewitz

“We know that university faculty are significantly left-of-center, significantly dominated by Democrats,” Sarewitz said. “The leading voices of science tend to be left-of-center Democrats. That means an affiliation of those scientists with policy prescriptions [such as those for climate change] that are left-of-center policy prescriptions.”

His conclusion: “I think that is very problematic.”

Is Science Promising Too Much?

Science also has contributed to this divisive atmosphere through “an over-claim of what can be done by investing in science,” said Hill.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a broad belief in the progress that science might bring; today, Hill said, “a bit of disillusionment has set in.” He pointed to the war on cancer, Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense initiative, the decades-long quest for renewable energy that would create energy independence among the many examples of massive science-based spending programs that largely have not delivered what was promised.

Furthermore, the media is no longer finite and dominated by three television networks, but has democratized and grown exponentially. Disagreements between researchers that once played out within the confines of science are now fodder for broad public discourse.

Controversies over the frequency and value of mammography, the falsification of data by certain high profile scientists, the suppression of pharmaceutical studies with negative findings, and the scramble for patent rights and other sources of revenue by nonprofit universities, have all tarnished the public reputation of science.

The United States also has lost its unchallenged leadership in all fields of science and technology that was manifest in the decades just after World War II. Other nations have closed the gap in many fields, and often barriers to innovation in areas such as biotech and computer software have become relatively low.

“You don’t have to be particularly wealthy to do it effectively,” Hill said. “All you need to do science is smart people, stable electricity, a reasonably stable political system, and some money.”

Innovation is quickly disseminated. “The ability to generate comparative advantage in trade and economic development,” and to reap the benefits of that research commitment, has shrunk, Hill said. Investment in science and technology “doesn’t buy us nearly what it used to buy us in terms of wealth,” and that makes it harder to justify investing in that research.

“Only about 4% of the members of Congress have any background in science,” said former U.S. Representative John Porter, an Illinois Republican and a champion of research funding. “Too few understand the scientific method and our peer-reviewed system of funding basic research.”

Science shoulders much of the responsibility, Porter said, because it “has not shared its knowledge and understanding of processes with the American people.”

Porter now serves as chairman of Research!America, the nation’s largest non-partisan, not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance focused on making health research a higher U.S. priority. He had some practical advice for researchers: “Call up your local school and tell them you want to teach a class about science. Go to the Rotary Club and make a speech about what you are doing. People will be fascinated. Invite your congressperson and your senators into your laboratory to see what goes on.”

And, he added, scientists and engineers should speak regularly with elected officials and their staffs.


Sign the AAAS petition to protect research funding from the 2013 sequestration budget cuts.

Learn more about the 2012 AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy.


Bob Roehr

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