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Letter from the Editor

by Philipp Steger

Science Policy & Funding in the U.S. - Dire Times Ahead

You know something is not quite right, when a staunch Democrat like Bob Palmer, heaps lavish praise on Newt Gingrich, the mastermind behind the 1994 Republican revolution, which brought Congress under firm Republican control. Palmer, a long-time House science committee staffer called a speech given by Gingrich at a science policy event several years ago "brilliant", because Gingrich had "the audience mesmerized" by talking about what science could do for all of society. According to Palmer, that sort of speech and its underlying vision are a relict of the past and not to be found in today's discussions on S&T policy.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Palmer's remarks were part of a recent meeting of science policy experts that brought together Republicans and Democrats to talk about the likely impact of the presidential election on science policy. Palmer's remarks were the icing on the cake in what turned out to be an event characterized by bipartisanship, a reminder of the sort of consensus across the political aisle that has become so rare in Washington these days. And while it was heartening to see the broad consensus on the panel, it was equally disheartening to learn that they shared the same gloomy view of what lies ahead for the sciences in the U.S.

Bob Palmer was ably assisted by his colleague, former Republican Congressman John Porter, in drawing a dismal picture of the future: most non-defense science programs will be lucky if they continue at their current level of funding; ideologically embattled technology transfer programs like the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) will almost certainly fall victim to the firm control that Republicans wield over both Congress and the White House; the rising influence of "moral value-voters" and the marginalization of moderate Republicans will likely cause a backlash on the federal role in the funding of embryonic stem cell research and other fields that pose similar challenging ethical questions; the little discressionary budget left for non-defense R&D will be significantly burdened by the exploding cost of the President's vision for NASA and its space exploration activities; pressing issues such as the development of appropriate remedies for global warming will remain on the backburner, while the administration's alleged assault on scientific integrity in policy advice might not receive the benefit of an in-depth investigation. In regards to that last point, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner framed the question that concerns much of the scientific community: "The core question is whether the results [of the presidential election] portend more or fewer examples of ideology attempting to trump science."

Another panelist, Kathleen Frankovic, a prominent NBC pollster, shared the outcome of some recent polls on people's attitude towards evolution theory vs. creationism. Understandably, the results have the scientific community worried: a clear majority of Americans attribute the existence and development of mankind to God rather than to evolution, and about 45 percent of Americans are also quite certain that the divine act of creating the first human beings took place sometime within the last 10,000 years.

All of this doesn't really come as a surprise. The writing on the wall had been hard to ignore ever since a number of S&T policy organizations threw their weight behind Senator John Kerry as presidential candidate. Now, many in the science community are worried that this unusual display of partisanship during the recent election may come at a high price. Their worry is not the manifestation of paranoia but is, in fact, based on some clues pointing in that direction. During a debate on the respective science policy agendas of the opposing candidates during the presidential campaign, President Bush's representative, former chair of the House Science Committee Bob Walker, ascertained that many scientists come from institutions "that have a heavily liberal bias" and that science did itself a disservice by mixing politics and science. Many in the audience perceived Walker's conclusion—"in a way that can engender a push-back at some point in the future"—as a not so subtle threat.

People in the audience, made up mostly of scientists and R&D managers, were clearly worried and wondering aloud what the remedy could be. Unfortunately, the remedy offered by the panel relied on a strategy, which is at least partially to blame for the predicament science finds itself in: the idea that there is a central economic argument on which science can be sold to politicians. As John Porter puts it, "the best way to [sell science to this administration and this congress] is to recount to them, over and over again that the economic destiny of America lies in science and technology." While there is some truth to this argument, it nevertheless sells science short and threatens to, in the long run, undercut the validity of the myriad reasons why every society needs to invest in both the natural and the social sciences. By continuing to repeat the mantra of the economic benefit of the sciences, we might eventually come to believe that this is all the logic that there is to funding science.

Fortunately, Alan Leshner made that fine distinction in his closing remarks. After professing his worry that science might be losing ground, he appealed to the role of science that goes beyond the economic benefit: "[…] I hope that, over time, we can come up with effective strategies to try to raise the valance again of science as a positive part of life, and not just as something that leads to economic gain."

Related Links

Webcast of discussion on S&T policy between representatives of John Kerry and George W. Bush (30.9.2004) http://www.aaas.org/news/press_room/election/AAAS-16k-160k-newer-codec.rm

A wealth of information on the presidential election 2004 and Science & Technology Policy


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