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Science Policy:  The Year Ahead

Photo of World in handsThe cover of the January 14 issue of National Journal promotes an article titled, “The Science Scare.”  Inside, the teaser for the piece begins, “Not since Sputnik have so many U.S. leaders pushed for paying more attention to science, but is the competitiveness crisis real?”  The Journal may be overdoing it with the Sputnik reference; “competitiveness” was a buzzword in the 1980s, and the sense of alarm is neither as keen nor as widespread as in the late 1950s.  But the article is certainly an indication that science policy is likely to be a prominent topic of debate in Washington in 2006.

Indeed, the President addressed aspects of science policy in his State of the Union Address, and in response to questions at a meeting with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card endorsed the thrust of the National Academy of Science’s recent report, The Gathering Storm, which is basically a brief for investing more in science and engineering research and education.

It’s not entirely clear what has pushed science policy on to the “front burner” – the concerns about U.S. leadership in science and technology have been brewing for quite some time – but it is clear that both Republicans and Democrats want to highlight the innovation issue and their solutions to it.  Already, this has produced both partisan sniping in press releases and bipartisan teamwork in bill introductions.

The debate over how to maintain U.S. leadership in innovation will play out through the year, particularly as Congress reviews the Administration’s fiscal year 2007 budget.  But the debate is likely to delve into more specific questions than whether the federal government is spending enough on basic research in the physical sciences.  Government and industry officials are also raising questions about how research can help address particular national needs.

This is most apparent in the energy arena, in which calls are multiplying for a focused effort – a “crash effort” or “Apollo-like effort,” some would say – to come up with technologies both to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil and to mitigate the impacts of climate change.  The Gathering Storm, for example, recommends setting up a new entity, ARPA-E, modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to develop energy technologies.

Congress is likely to debate proposals like ARPA-E in 2006, which, ideally, will prompt a fuller discussion not only of what kinds of federal investments are needed to help develop new technologies, but also of what kinds of federal policies are needed to get those technologies into homes and offices.  (There were some surprising signs late last year of a willingness within Congress to discuss policy questions.  During the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, several conservatives raised the notion of toughening federal fuel economy standards for cars and trucks (CAFE standards) as part of a deal to allow oil drilling in Alaska.)  Energy investments and policy will also be front and center when the House Science Committee holds a hearing on the Department of Energy’s Climate Change Technology Plan, which was released last fall, to poor reviews.

Congressional discussion of science issues in 2006 will not revolve entirely around questions linked to spending.  For example, the Science Committee will continue to pursue issues raised at a hearing last fall on the environmental ramifications of nanotechnology.  This is a rare moment when industry, academia and environmental groups are all interested in learning more about the potential environmental consequences of nanotechnology and are open to discussions about appropriate regulation.  Congress needs to foster that discussion.

Other, more contentious environmental matters are also likely to come to the fore.  The Administration has announced new pollution regulations governing emissions of fine particles (PM 2.5).  The last time the particle regulations were changed, in 1997, numerous Congressional committees held hearings on the science behind the proposals.  While the science is far more settled than it was then, the regulations remain controversial, and a range of hearings is again likely.

New risk assessment guidelines proposed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) may also come in for Congressional scrutiny.  But OMB has asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the guidelines, and Congress may wait for Academy guidance before opening up the discussion.  When OMB issued peer review guidelines, it eventually heeded Academy advice, and Congress never felt the need to take up the issue.

Congress may once again debate climate change science as well.  In the Senate, debate could be sparked by renewed efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions.  In the House, debate would more likely begin if the Energy and Commerce Committee chooses to pursue its investigation of the authors of the so-called “hockey stick article” – a paper that argued that recent warm temperatures are without precedent in the past 1,000 years.

Another area of focus in Congress is likely to be the balance between science and security.  At the request of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences recently initiated a study designed to identify and evaluate the primary concerns scientists have about how the post-9/11 emphasis on security may be hampering the scientific enterprise.  And expected action on new export control regulations proposed by the Department of Commerce could also bring this issue to a head.

Congress has already played an active role in the security debate.  The House Science Committee took the lead in 2004 raising concerns about the extraordinary backlog of visas for scientists and science students.  A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study requested by the Committee documented the problem, which was also the subject of several hearings.  The public debate helped lead to changes in Administration policy, which have significantly reduced the backlog (although the U.S. is still having problems attracting foreign students).

And Congress will also be debating agency-specific science policy questions, including the future of NASA and the fate of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  Congress last year enacted a NASA Authorization Act that both endorsed the President’s Vision for Space Exploration and declared that NASA must be a multi-mission agency with robust programs in space science, earth science and aeronautics as well as human space flight.  The debate over the fiscal year 2007 budget will determine how NASA goes about satisfying both those requirements.

The NPOESS program, which is building the next generation of weather satellites, is more than 25 percent over budget and years behind schedule.  At hearings last year, the House Science Committee took the Administration to task for the program failures.  A revised program plan is due this spring to the Science Committee and the Armed Services Committee (the program is jointly run by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Air Force).

In short, this hardly seems the time to lament the lack of debate over science policy in Washington or the unwillingness of Congress to air science issues.  What remains to be seen is how much progress a divided Congress will make in an election year in resolving these issues.  As of now, the outlook is promising.

David Goldston