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Science Policy:  The Victim of Partisan Politics

Icon of CapitalIn 2000, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave a breakfast speech to AAAS’s annual Colloquium on S&T Policy.  Gingrich’s speech was mesmerizing and powerful, because he dared to ask and answer big questions about the proper role of S&T in society – the relationship between science and health care, science and the economy, science and international relations.

But Gingrich’s speech was most noteworthy for another reason: it was a rare serious science policy speech given by a public figure (albeit a deposed one).  Unfortunately, for over a decade, there has been no consistent, focused debate about the roles of S&T in meeting broader national goals, as there has been about the rightful place of so many other aspects of our culture, like abortion, abstinence, Federal support of education, the military’s role in promoting democracy worldwide, and individual rights in a society threatened by terrorism.  These issues are constantly sifted – perhaps because of their value in highlighting differences between the two parties – but debates about connecting science with broader goals in society just aren’t taking place in the national government.

This wasn’t always the case.  Enactment in 1976 of the National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act established a Federal administrative organization for science policy and articulated a science policy for the Nation.  For many years, former Congressman George Brown prodded the scientific community to engage politically and take responsibility for the impacts of its work.  The Clinton Administration opened a broad dialogue on directing the government’s S&T resources toward economic competitiveness.

Recent efforts to catalyze a debate have been less successful.  In 1997, Speaker Gingrich asked Congressman Vern Ehlers to produce a new U.S. science policy; unfortunately, Ehlers’ report did not tie S&T policy to any overriding goals and even Gingrich later admitted it was a timid endorsement of the status quo.  And in 2001, the Bush Administration began evaluating government programs under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA).  Despite its great potential, GPRA hasn’t produced a clear set of national S&T priorities, nor has it done much to clarify funding decisions.  Today’s Office of Science and Technology Policy – OSTP - seems obsessed not with outcomes, but with outputs – specifically with explanations of why its budget numbers are wonderfully healthy.

While debates about S&T policy have never been center-stage in Washington, its current corrosively partisan atmosphere has driven them further underground.  Partisan science fights began in the late 1980’s, when S&T became politicized in Congress as part of a broader strategy – ironically formulated by the aforementioned Newt Gingrich – to fight Democrats on everything, including science.  The partisan fight over science policy – exemplified today in reports by Congressman Waxman and the Union of Concerned Scientists – did not start during this Administration.  It has been bubbling in Congress for 15 years.

A casualty of this new partisanship has been significant S&T legislation.  One NASA authorization bill has been enacted since 1990.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s, broad NASA policy bills passed once or twice every Congress.  Today, Republican Congressional leaders fear they lack the votes to implement the President’s new space vision.  So leaders like Texas’s ethically challenged Tom Delay work their miracles behind closed doors, and the money flows.  The most significant changes to the nation’s civilian space policy in 40 years are moving forward, but there are no votes, no public debate, no democracy.

The corrosive effects of secrecy and partisanship are not limited to space policy.  Environmental legislation has also ground to a standstill.  Significant environmental policy is now made through executive orders.  Or it’s surreptitiously inserted into legislative riders to massive appropriations bills, so that Members don’t have to answer to a politically active environmental community for their public votes.  This approach to governance takes casualties – namely transparency, accountability, and democracy.

Another casualty of partisanship is Congressional oversight.  Today the Republican Congress conducts virtually none on the Republican administration.  We see no public debate on the misuse of science and scientific integrity, nor on commercialization of universities under the Bayh-Dole Act, militarization of the civilian space program, NASA’s financial mismanagement, OMB’s new peer review rules, or the Administration’s meek response to the loss of manufacturing jobs or to threats in cyber-space.  After all, conducting such hearings – fully justifiable by both the Constitution and common sense – could give ammunition to Democrats.

Why should this increasingly partisan atmosphere matter to science, when it will continue to perk along nicely, buoyed by tens of billions of dollars of Federal funding?  It matters because S&T are key to helping us understand and respond to global changes unprecedented in their speed and scope.  We have the largest defense budgets and among the largest Federal deficits in history.  We also have the challenge of terrorism and the threat of attacks on our own soil from weapons of mass destruction.  Health care costs continue to spiral upward, threatening our small businesses and our future fiscal stability, despite massive expenditures on health research, which seem to exacerbate the cost problem.  We face an increasingly competitive Asia, whose ability to challenge our manufacturing base, even our high-tech base – and before long our research and development base – seems limitless.

None of these challenges will be solved by science, but they will all require the wise application of science.  In the current environment, they may not even get serious consideration, because of a fixation upon partisan advantage and a political culture which makes it increasingly difficult to reach across party and ideological barriers.

As an example of this debilitating partisanship, consider Dr. Marburger, the Presidential Science Advisor.  In his first four years on the job – in stark contrast to the last Republican science advisor, Hill regular Allan Bromley – he never met the Ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee.  I do not fault Dr. Marburger, a decent and thoughtful man; I blame an overly partisan White House staff that thinks Democrats simply don’t matter.

The Federal government is not responding to the many political challenges of the day – energy, environment, health care, global economic competition – whose resolution would greatly benefit from the wise application of S&T.  When politics is overly fettered by partisanship, so is science – in the sense that its legitimate role in opening up more room for negotiations and the development of policy options is severely limited.  This unfortunately is the niche that science policy occupies today.

What an irony that Newt Gingrich, a man with more ideas about science policy than any public figure since George Brown, created so many of the partisan problems that continue to plague us – problems that make this an excruciatingly boring and unproductive time for the practice of science policy in government.

Robert Palmer
Democratic Staff Director of the Committee on Science
U.S. House of Representatives, 1993 - 2004