New Science Committee Chairman Discusses His Priorities and Philosophy

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Publication date: 
1 February 2001

Yesterday, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, the new chairman of the House Science Committee, spoke to the Universities Research Association (URA). In his first speech as chairman, Boehlert, a moderate Republican from central New York, outlined his major priorities and overall philosophy that will guide the committee. Selections from his remarks follow:

APPROACH AND PRIORITIES: "I want to build the Science Committee into a significant force within the Congress and, with that momentum, I want to ensure that we have a healthy, sustainable, and productive R&D establishment - one that educates students, increases human knowledge, strengthens U.S. competitiveness and contributes to the well-being of the nation and the world.

"With those goals in mind, I intend to concentrate initially on three priorities - science and math education, energy policy and the environment - three areas in which the resources and expertise of the scientific enterprise must be brought to bear on issues of national significance."

EDUCATION (lead sentences from several paragraphs combined): "Education is perhaps the most pressing dilemma of the three." "...I do have is a set of questions that I hope will frame the Committee's agenda as we put together an education program, in concert with the Administration and other House committees." "Here are some of my questions. First, how can we attract more top students into science and math teaching?" "Second, how can we ensure that technology actually improves education?" "Third, how can we use exams in a way that promotes critical thinking, retention of knowledge and a love of learning?"

"And one of my goals will be to find new ways to draw on the resources of our great research universities to help answer the kinds of questions that I just posed. The partnership between universities and industry has grown markedly closer in recent years; the relationship between universities and our nation's school systems must do the same."

ENERGY POLICY: "Universities can also play a role in addressing my second priority area - energy policy. Clearly, as President Bush has said, we need a comprehensive energy policy that looks at all aspects of supply and demand, in both the short- and long-term.

"But my focus will be on ensuring that we concentrate sufficiently on alternative sources of energy - wind, solar, fuel cells, etc. - and on conservation and efficiency. These are areas that have been underfunded in terms of both research and deployment."

"But in making environment a focus of the Science Committee's work, I want to do more than explore the workings of government research programs. I want the Committee to be a central forum to learn about the science behind ongoing -- and, even more importantly, brewing - controversies in environmental policy.

"Two prominent examples spring to mind immediately: First, global climate change, where the scientific consensus is growing all the time that we face serious consequences from human-generated emissions of greenhouse gases; and second, biotechnology, where I believe more serious attention needs to be paid to concerns about possible ecological impacts even as we acknowledge the potential benefits of genetically modified organisms."

SCIENCE POLICY AND FUNDING ISSUES: "Now, I realize, of course, that I have been speaking to you for a while without mentioning any of the science policy issues usually discussed at URA gatherings."

"But I wanted to start with my three immediate priorities because they will be the subject of our first three full Committee hearings - probably in early March - and because I think that the entire research community needs to think more about such issues, about the intersection of research with our national goals and concerns.

"But I don't mean to indicate the Committee will turn away from the equally critical concerns about the health of the research enterprise itself.

"So let me say unambiguously that I will fight to increase research funding, in general, and funding for the physical sciences, in particular. Unique and vital DOE facilities, like Fermilab, must continue to prosper, even as we participate in international projects like the Large Hadron Collider.

"With that commitment in mind, I want the Committee, early on, to take a serious look at the balance within the federal research portfolio. Now we all know that that is a somewhat euphemistic way of raising the question, 'Is biomedical research bulking too large in the federal research budget?' Those who believe that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are eating up a disproportionate share of the federal budget have two solid facts on their side: the extraordinary growth in that share, and the dependence of the American economy, and of biomedical research itself, on a wide range of research disciplines. And a cursory look at the numbers certainly gives one the feeling that things may be a little out of whack.

"But if we are to take action, we're going to need to dig a little deeper and ask some tougher questions. How would we know if NIH was over-funded in either relative or absolute terms? Given the public concern with health and the advances in biology, why shouldn't NIH get a larger share of the pie? Hasn't one set of concerns always loomed largest in the federal R&D budget whether that be the Manhattan Project or the Cold War or the Space Race?

"These are not meant, in the least, as merely rhetorical questions. They are difficult questions that ought to be explored further if we're going to make a case for either limiting NIH's growth or greatly increasing the budget for every other field.

"Similarly, we need to ask tough questions, if we're really thinking about doubling the entire federal civilian science budget. Questions like: Why double? What are we going to get for that money? How will we know if we are under- or over-spending in any field?

"The science policy debate sometimes seems composed entirely of randomly generated numbers. We really need to push for more data.

"I don't say this out of any opposition to the proposed bill that would set a goal of doubling the science budget. In fact, I'm kindly disposed toward that bill. I would like to find a way to pass it. The bill might do some real good because it would put Congress on the record as saying that science spending is a real priority.

"But that shouldn't obscure the fact that doubling will never become a reality if we can't make a much more solid case to the appropriators.

"It's a case that is going to have be made agency by agency, as well as in general terms. Looking at DOE, for example, I want to get a much clearer sense of the Department's needs as it tries to upgrade aging facilities and replace a retiring workforce. And despite years of post-Cold War studies, my sense is that we still don't have a clear policy regarding the role of the national laboratories."

RESEARCH UNIVERSITIES: "If we're going to increase the federal science budget, we also need to take a much harder look, brushing aside all cant, at the changing nature of our research universities. I'm thinking here especially of the questions raised by the growing partnership between universities and industry.

"That partnership, encouraged by legislation, is having many beneficial effects. But it's time we make sure that we understand better how it's affecting the university -- in terms of education, the free flow of information, the nature of university research, and the development of intellectual property, to name just a few matters of concern.

"This is the time to review that relationship, when it is still developing and fluid. Neither partner has been sufficiently willing to do that. University officials sometimes simultaneously argue, on the one hand, that partnerships are at the cutting-edge of organizational arrangements and, on the other, that their hallowed institutions are still seeking the truth in the time-honored way that has not changed appreciably since the Middle Ages. I exaggerate, of course, but the discussion really does have to be a little bit more open.

"Universities ran into trouble in undergraduate education, in part, because they were unwilling for too long to acknowledge that the rise of the modern research university had changed the nature of the campus. That reluctance stemmed from the understandable fear that raising questions would lead some to argue that research and education could not productively co- exist. But in the end, the lack of discussion hurt undergraduate education in a way that put research at greater risk. An honest, open look at partnerships now should help make them more productive rather than hampering them."

CHAIRMAN BOEHLERT'S APPROACH: "Obviously, there are many more issues before the Committee, but what I've discussed should give you a good sense of my approach and concerns. "My goal is to be your staunchest ally and your fairest critic. To be Shakespearean about it, my role model will be Cordelia -- King Lear's daughter who would not utter false professions of love, but who stood by her father when everyone else had deserted him. I won't press the analogy -- I don't want to imply that university presidents will become crazed, naked old men wandering helplessly about the moors.

"All I mean to say is that you can count on me to fight for the nation's interest by bolstering, and drawing on the expertise of the scientific community. You can also count on me to ask tough and uncomfortable questions to ensure that the scientific community is acting in its and the nation's long- term interests. I intend to do that openly, fairly, cooperatively and with true intellectual curiosity.

"I want to run the Committee in a way that would make Einstein smile. I want to make sure that as long as I'm chairman, no one plays dice with your universe.

"Thank you. I look forward to working with all of you."