Congress Must Increase Bush’s Science Budget

Posted April 22, 2005 at 4:53pm

President Bush is aggressively fighting two of the biggest threats facing America — terrorism and the Social Security shortfall — but he’s falling woefully short in addressing the likelihood that the United States will lose its longstanding lead in high technology. [IMGCAP(1)]

Over a series of years, one alarming report after another has warned that the nation is falling behind in scientific education and discovery and stands to lose jobs as a result. Yet the administration persists in treating basic research as “spending,” not investment.

Fortunately, the danger has attracted the attention of one of Congress’ most diligent activists, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the White House science adviser’s office.

Wolf, who has led Congressional campaigns against gambling and has focused national attention on religious persecution and other human rights violations around the world, is now putting together an agenda to reverse America’s decline in science.

On April 12, he and two House colleagues — accompanied by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — announced the introduction of legislation to have the U.S. government pay the interest on undergraduate loans for students who agree to work in science, math or engineering for a five-year period.

Wolf also favors holding a blue-ribbon national conference on technology, trade and manufacturing where leaders of industry would highlight the danger to U.S. leadership. He wants to triple funding for federal basic-science programs over a period of years.

And he says the United States should establish a rich prize — of as much as $1 billion — for the solution to major scientific problems such as the discovery of an alternative to fossil fuels.

Wolf told me in an interview, rather diplomatically, that “I personally believe that [the Bush administration is] underfunding science. Not purposefully. I think we have a deficit problem, and previous administrations have underfunded it also.”

Gingrich is less diplomatic. “I am totally puzzled by what they’ve done with the basic-research budget,” he told me. “As a national security conservative and as a world trade-economic competition conservative, I cannot imagine how they could have come up with this budget.”

He continued: “There’s no point in arguing with them internally. They’re going to do what they are going to do. But I think if this Congress does not substantially raise the research budget, we are unilaterally disarming from the standpoint of international competition.”

The Bush administration claims that its total budget for research and development —$132 billion for fiscal 2006 — is up 5.5 percent from last year and 45 percent above funding in the last year of the Clinton administration.

And the budget calls for $269 million for its Mathematics and Science Partnership program to upgrade the skills of teachers and the performance of students.

However, administration critics, including Gingrich and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, say that most of its research and development budget increases are for new defense weapons systems, not for basic research in electronics, nanotechnology, computing, energy and physics.

And given continued poor performance by U.S. students in international math and science tests, combined with the comparatively low numbers of U.S. students now earning degrees in science, there’s a need for even more effort to bolster science education.

Congressional sources point out that, in an effort to cut the deficit, the administration has recommended reductions in the education programs of the NSF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and has eliminated funding for the popular Jason program, founded by undersea explorer Robert Ballard, which attracts thousands of young people to science projects.

Wolf said that, besides getting Appropriations Committee responsibilities for science, he was also inspired to foster science education by attending a Jason program with hundreds of students at a school in his district during the final game of the World Series last October.

He also was stimulated, he said, by Gingrich’s book, “Winning the Future,” which declares that “investing in science (including math and science education) is the most important strategic investment we can make in continued American leadership economically and militarily.”

Wolf said he also was influenced by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s new book, “The World Is Flat” and an Arts and Entertainment cable TV movie on the 18th century British scientific prize awarded for the discovery of methods to calculate longitude for shipping.

And, he said, he’s read and absorbed all the recent reports on America’s falling behind in technology. The latest, issued in February by 11 high-tech companies (including Microsoft, Intel and Lucent), trade associations and academic scientific societies, documents losses in key benchmarks of competition.

Among the findings in the report are that the U.S. share of undergraduate and graduate degrees in science and engineering is dropping behind those of Asia and Europe.

The report said that Asian students who once came to the United States to earn Ph.D.s are increasingly staying at home both because of U.S. visa restrictions and local opportunities.

The U.S. share of scientific publications has dropped behind that of Western Europe, and Asia’s has increased nearly fivefold from 1988 to 2001. Total research and development investment by six of the fastest-growing economies has nearly caught up with that in the United States.

Federal funding for research and development has fallen from 1.25 percent in 1985 to 0.75 percent in 2001. And U.S. 12th graders scored 16th out of 21 nations in science and 19th in math in the last international matchups.

The Russian launch of Sputnik in the 1950s triggered a huge national investment in science — the space program and the National Defense Education Act. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks provoked an all-out war on terrorism. It’s clear, the United States faces a similar competitiveness challenge. Somebody’s got to tell the president. Congress should.