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Scientists Are Becoming a Rarer Congressional Breed, and That's Not a Good Thing | Commentary

Unless a new scientist emerges victorious in the 2014 November elections, the nerd factor on Capitol Hill will have taken a nose dive in the last six years.

It wasn’t too long ago the House of Representatives could count five Ph.D. natural scientists on its rarefied roster: three physicists, one chemist and one mathematician. But without something unexpected in the next eight months, the five of yesteryear will become the two of tomorrow, once Rep. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., retires.

As a physicist, I am troubled by the shrinkage for parochial reasons. But as a nation, we should all be concerned for reasons that are far more compelling and urgent. In a world in which science and technology increasingly control the roll of the dice, we simply cannot afford to gamble solely on lawmakers who don’t fully understand the rules of the science game or the odds of the next bet.

Three years ago, in “That Used To Be Us,” Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum documented how we have fallen behind in the world we invented. And although they prescribed a compelling cure, you can’t find many takers in Congress — not because the path is too difficult to climb, but rather because it isn’t on the beaten political track and because it probably requires a cadre of legislators who have more than a passing acquaintance with science and technology.

It may not be surprising that attorneys make up the largest block of lawmakers: 60 percent in the Senate and about a third in the House. And a law degree per se isn’t a bad thing — I’m immensely proud of my daughter who is a successful lawyer. But a J.D. is no longer a sufficient credential for legislating on science.

Take the FIRST Act (HR 4186), which the House is currently considering.

Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, under whose aegis the bill falls, is a lawyer with a fine pedigree. And I give him the benefit by not doubting his sincerity when he says the bill’s goal is to prioritize “science investments to keep America first.” But many of the bill’s key provisions, in the view of virtually every scientist I know who has looked at them, would largely do the opposite. Here are two examples:

First, the bill limits every National Science Foundation proposal to five personal citations of published work. Yet, the NSF routinely asks peer reviewers to judge whether the track record of a potential grantee warrants the support requested. In many cases, that requirement means reviewers must evaluate research findings that may have appeared in many different journals, each dedicated to a particular feature of the author’s work. For a prospective grantee who has been scientifically productive, citations of just the most salient research findings invariably will far exceed the limit of five. Tying the hands of scientists with the bill’s restriction is akin to limiting a defense attorney to no more than five pieces of admissible evidence.

The FIRST Act also states, “principal investigators who have received more than 5 years of Foundation funding at any point in their careers  . . .  are only awarded additional research grants  . . .  if they will be contributing original, creative and transformative research under the grant.”

The language clearly suggests that five years should be the maximum duration of a typical research project. Yet, in the fields of high-energy physics, nuclear physics and astronomy, many projects require a decade or more to reach fruition.

Had former Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., a physicist who retired from the House in 2010 after 17 years of service, still been a member of the committee responsible for the FIRST Act, I doubt any of such language would have survived.

Ehlers, some readers might recall, took the House floor in 1998 to instruct Mark Sanford that ATM, the South Carolina Republican’s poster child of frivolous NSF funding, was not the acronym for “Automatic Teller Machine” but rather “Asynchronous Transfer Mode,” the backbone of the Internet.

The departures of Ehlers and Holt are losses not only for me personally, but for Congress and the nation.

Michael S. Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.

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