There was a time, and it really wasn’t so long ago, that despite their differences, Democrats and Republicans could reliably agree on two policy judgments: Science plays a central role in building the nation’s future, and federal science support is required to achieve many key national goals.
There were good reasons. Science had provided radar and nuclear weapons that won World War II. It had produced imaging technologies, such as the CT scan and the MRI, and myriad lifesaving drugs, among them antibiotics and antiretroviral medicines, that helped diagnose and cure diseases. And it had generated game-changing technologies, such as the laser and large-scale integrated circuits, that propelled the American economy.
To be sure, the two parties disagreed on what the government should emphasize in its research portfolio. Democrats generally espoused a broad investment, focusing on strategic and applied programs. Republicans, for the most part, concentrated on long-term “basic research.”
Nonetheless, Members of Congress found a way to bridge the ideological divide. For many years, former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) partnered with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) in crafting policies and budgets for the Department of Energy’s science and technology programs that drew bipartisan support.
In the late 1990s, former Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) worked with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and former Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health. None of them let conflicting philosophies become deal breakers when scientific research was at stake.
Former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) didn’t either. He co-sponsored the 1998 National Research Investment Act with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — who was then a Democrat. And that year and the year after, former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) worked with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to corral a bipartisan posse of co-sponsors and twice pass the Federal Research Investment Act by voice vote.
That era also saw Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) name Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) in 1997 as chairman of the first comprehensive Congressional study of science policy. Ehlers’ bipartisan study group released “Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy” the next year. Its consensus goals for America’s science and technology enterprise drew broad bipartisan support.
But today, such support for anything on Capitol Hill is much harder to find.
Recent House votes on two amendments offered by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to the fiscal 2013 Commerce, Justice and science appropriations bill may only be partisan shots across the science bow, but they cannot be ignored.
Picking a fiscal fight with the National Science Foundation is nothing new for Flake, who has repeatedly offered amendments to cut the agency’s budget. In past years, his colleagues have rebuffed his attempts. This year, the balance began to tilt his way. His amendment to end NSF support for political science research passed, 218-208, with 27 Republicans voting against it and five Democrats voting for it.
And although his other amendment failed, the nature of the vote count is significant. Far more draconian in its overall effect, that amendment would have reduced NSF’s 2013 spending by $1.2 billion or 17 percent, forcing the foundation to slash its support for new competitive research proposals by more than 50 percent. The final vote was 121-291, with all the yea votes coming from Republicans.
Cracks in the consensus for federal support of science research and education actually became evident two years ago, when Republican backing for reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act evaporated. The original legislation, which tracked President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, had passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 367-57 in 2007. Then, 143 Republicans had supported the legislation that authorized budget increases for three key science agencies. In 2010, only 17 did.
What then of the future? A shrinking political center doesn’t bode well. If ideological purity prevents lawmakers from cooperating on science, the engine of American economic growth for the past half-century will sputter and, with it, the dreams of a better tomorrow.
Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.