A Science and Technology Challenge for Congress | Commentary

Posted January 5, 2015 at 6:16pm

When the 114th Congress convenes, it will find it has lost something of significance: much of its institutional memory about science and technology. And with the rest of the world making a strong play to topple America from its perch atop the innovation pyramid, that’s very troubling.

Two major lights will be missing from the House: Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., a physicist; and Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., the appropriations chairman with purview over the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their retirements come on the heels of several other House departures in recent years.

Rep. John W. Olver, D-Mass., a chemist, hung up his political cleats in 2012. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., a physicist, exited in 2010, as did Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., who was the incumbent House Science and Technology Committee chairman. His predecessor, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., had left in 2006.

Together, the six former House members logged a total of 140 years of legislative service. That’s a lot of experience to lose in any field, but it is especially true in the arcane arena of science and technology policy.

Across the Hill, the Senate will have to plug the gaping hole left by the retirement of Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. A decade and a half ago, Rockefeller teamed up with former Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and co-sponsored the Federal Research Investment Act. The 1999 legislation, the progenitor of the 2007 America COMPETES Act, provided the first road map and economic rationale for broad federal investment in science and engineering research. The bill, having garnered exceptional bipartisan support, passed the Senate by unanimous consent, but failed in the House over jurisdictional jousting.

Rockefeller’s 30-year tenure matched that of another Senate science stalwart, Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who left in 2012. Bingaman was the Democratic counterweight of the New Mexico science and technology gang of two, which Peter V. Domenici, R-N.M., anchored on the GOP side for 36 years before he retired in 2008.

As a new generation of lawmakers takes over, it ought to consider some novel approaches to supporting America’s research enterprise at a time of federal fiscal stress. Here’s one possibility, for which I have to give significant credit to Tom Culligan, who was Wolf’s legislative director.

Last summer, I sat down with Tom to ponder a Wolf-less future and at the same time to do some serious brainstorming. We both agreed that science responds badly to uncertainty and a feast-or-famine diet.

American science needs a stabilizer that can keep the research ship righted whenever it is buffeted by unpredictable fiscal storms.

A research bank, administered by a public-private partnership, would augment the annual science appropriations when serious shortfalls occurred. Appropriators would have no guarantee the bank would fill the holes they might create willfully, since federal officials would not solely govern the bank. The private sector would provide a check on nefarious legislative deeds.

How much capital would the bank need, and where would it get it?

The first question is relatively easy to answer. Currently, the federal government spends about $65 billion on research annually. A shortfall, created by sequestration, for example, could be as much as $5 billion. Therefore, to fill the hole, the bank would need a capitalization of about $100 billion, assuming a 7 percent return on investment and an inflation rate of about 2 percent.

Comprehensive tax reform could provide a mechanism to fill the banks coffers, if the reform measure includes a plan to facilitate repatriation of the $2 trillion American corporations have parked overseas. As part of the repatriation tax package, corporations would be required to invest 5 percent of their overseas stash in the research bank.

They should readily agree, since they owe American science big time. Federally funded research has enabled them to innovate and to profit from their innovations. Apple, for example, can trace its success not only to the genius of Steve Jobs, but also to federal agencies such as the NSF, NASA, NIST and the Department of Defense. Jobs had the ability to foresee what consumers would want even before they knew they wanted it. And the federal research agencies had the ability to fund research even before American corporations knew they needed it.

That collaboration has paid off: for industry and for the consumer. Congress and the administration must make sure it stays healthy.

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. He writes and speaks widely about scientific research and science policy.