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FYI Number 61: May 9, 2001

Chairman Boehlert:
The Scientific Community Has Its Work Cut Out for It

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) addressed the AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy last week. Boehlert stated at the outset that "the science budgets the Administration has proposed are too low," and predicted that "these numbers are going to get better." Looking ahead, Boehlert said "what supporters of research need to begin doing now is reinforcing the arguments for the federal investment in R&D," and cautioned against what he called "a recipe for failure."

Chairman Boehlert's address was very well received by the audience. It is reprinted below:

"It's a pleasure to be here this morning to address this colloquium my first chance to do so as the Chairman of the House Science Committee. Still, I have to admit that I'm not sure I would have chosen this particular year to make my premier appearance. That's not because things are so bad -- the overall outlook is positive if a bit uncertain. But rather I'm worried that the scientific community has talked itself, as it sometimes does, into a kind of funk.

"The mood reminds me of the opening line of Woody Allen's essay 'My Address to the Graduates' -- which some of you may have heard me reference before. Woody Allen's graduation speech begins: 'Today we are at a crossroads. One road leads to hopelessness and despair; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we choose wisely.'

"I hope I'm able to dispel that kind of gloom.

"I'm not going to try to change your mood, though, by being a Polyanna. So let me be clear: the science budgets the Administration has proposed are too low. In fact, last week, when we had officials from NSF, NASA, DOE and NOAA in front of our Committee for a budget hearing, I asked them if they had thought of staging a sit-in at the Office of Management and Budget when they saw the numbers.[See FYI #58.]

"The numbers for the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department's Office of Science are especially disappointing. We know that those agencies can productively and efficiently absorb greater increases because they're doing so this year.

"I'm also very disturbed by the proposed slashing of the research budgets for alternative energy sources and energy conservation because advances in those areas must be an integral part of any sensible, comprehensive energy policy. I'm still holding out some hope that Vice President Cheney's energy report may revisit those programs.

"I'm certainly willing to examine the energy programs to see if they can be made more effective. But they're not going to be made more effective by having far less money to spend. And they're not going to be made more effective by being told to tread water for a few years until they can be resurrected with ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] revenues.

"Firstly, I don't believe there are going to be any ANWR revenues, and, in any event, we shouldn't have to deplete one energy resource to find the money to develop another one.

"Finally, on the budget, we still don't really even know what the proposed numbers will be for research spending in the Defense Department because they won't be determined until next month after Secretary Rumsfeld's review is completed.

"So, with the major exception of the National Institutes of Health, the proposed budget leaves a lot to be desired.

"So then why am I not more concerned? That's simple: because these numbers are going to get better -- most likely, a little better this year, and a lot better next year. I say that because support for R&D remains remarkably strong in both the Administration and the Congress.

"The Administration's budget this year reflects the President's campaign priorities, which, not surprisingly, did not include R&D outside of the NIH. The budget does not reflect any hostility toward, or ideological grudge against R&D spending, and indeed the budget language already signals an intention to increase spending for NSF in the next budget. My conversations with Mitch Daniels, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, have confirmed that impression.

"Simply put, the numbers in this year's budget have been offered 'without prejudice.' They were driven by factors outside of science policy, and the Administration is already more focused on need to invest in R&D, even as it continues to put together its science policy team.

"Moreover, Congress remains committed to making strong investments in R&D. For example, the Senate voted to significantly increase spending for NSF, NASA and DOE -- the so-called 'Function 250' -- in its Budget Resolution.

"So what will come of all these warm if fuzzy feelings toward science?

"Well, for fiscal 2002, I think we'll see some small improvement over the proposed budgets. The final Budget Resolution we will vote on later today provides for a 5 percent increase in overall domestic discretionary spending -- one percentage point higher than what the President proposed. That means that more money will be available for science spending, and I will be working with the Appropriations Committee to ensure that as much of that money as possible is allotted to research.

"One thing that will be different this year with all the budget machinery controlled by the Republican Party is that we will stick to that overall domestic discretionary number. In the past few years, the budget numbers vanished each fall like the Cheshire Cat, leaving only a mocking grin. Those days are over, and people are going to have to pay more attention to the bottom line numbers in the Budget Resolution than they have in the past.

"And that brings me to my final point -- which is a cautionary one. Even though science can draw on a remarkably large reservoir of good will, even though science spending will grow more in 2002 and 2003 than the current numbers on the table might indicate, the scientific community still has its work cut out for it.

"That's because the overall projected growth in domestic discretionary spending for 2003 and beyond is only enough to cover inflation. The actual figure is likely to be higher than that, but spending growth will be constrained. That means the competition for federal dollars will be fierce.

"So what supporters of research need to begin doing now is reinforcing the arguments for the federal investment in R&D. That means reinforcing them analytically and politically. "Reinforcing the case for R&D analytically means providing good, solid arguments for specific levels of spending not just throwing the word 'doubling' around as if it cast a magic spell. And it means providing good, solid thinking about what it may mean to have a balanced federal research portfolio.

"Reinforcing the argument for R&D politically means making sure you are working with all Members of Congress back home in their districts and that business leaders are making clear their reliance on federal R&D. Leaders of the scientific community spend far too much time with their natural allies, like me; and far too little time convincing newer or more skeptical Members of Congress that R&D makes a difference in their districts and to the nation.

"The scientific community must not be complacent, and it cannot assume that it inherently has the greatest claim to, or most self-evident argument for federal largess. That's a recipe for failure.

"Finally, the scientific community must demonstrate that it is bringing its enormous resources to bear on central national problems. I'm thinking especially of education. The university community often talks about the link between research and education, but that must be more than just a rhetorical flourish.

"Universities must not only focus more on undergraduate education even as they continue to offer world-class graduate programs; universities and businesses must play a greater role in improving K-12 education. And in the next week or so I will unveil a bill that will help and encourage them to play such a role. If research is going to continue to merit large-scale public support -- as it must -- then the research establishment must rededicate itself to addressing our most pressing and perplexing public needs.

"And that attention will pay off because it will excite the natural curiosity of the young. I'm reminded of some letters I received from second graders in Cooperstown, NY, which is in my Congressional district a few years ago. The second graders had been asked to send me letters explaining why science is important.

"One wrote, 'Without science the world would be whacko; there might not even be gravity.'

"Now Washington may be the wrong place to talk about how to keep the world from becoming 'whacko,' but this is someone who understands that a lot is at stake when we talk about science. And with his fractured second-grader logic, this student hit on a larger point as well -- when we fail to analyze or understand the world around us, it's almost as if that world ceases fully to exist.

"So I urge you to help us understand the value of science and to take the time to understand the world of politics and budgeting. That way each of our worlds can inform the other. And that's when the scientific enterprise and the nation will thrive.

"Thank you."

Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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