Science and technology policy's grand old man is Democratic Rep. George E. Brown Jr., the 73-year-old congressman representing the area around Riverside, Calif. A physicist by training, Brown has served on the Science Committee since the 1960s (when it was called the Science & Astronautics Committee), with a couple of years' absence during the 1970s when he unsuccessfully ran for the Senate. Brown virtually pioneered early discussion of most of the issues facing Congress today--for example, the information superhighway, global warming and other aspects of environmental change, space exploration, and technology policy.
The past couple of years were difficult for Brown. He lost his committee chairmanship in the Republican sweep of 1994 and was almost constantly locked in bitter confrontation with his counterpart on the Republican side, Pennsylvanian Robert S. Walker.
But Brown ran successfully for reelection in 1996 and is running again next year. He has this to say about the past three years on Capitol Hill: "There has been a marked reduction in this Congress in the hubris that the junior members felt about their ability to change the course of the world. With that decline in hubris, it's now possible to work together in a more amicable fashion. Walker relished the role of the dogmatic protector of the faith, you might say, the true conservative who could establish the parameters for what all the other members should be doing, particularly in the science area. Walker was not the most likable man in the world, and his aides were even worse."
But Walker retired from Congress and F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) rose to the chairmanship. He fired all five of the committee aides. Brown reports a new spirit of cooperation in the committee. "We don't get to participate in important policy decisions," he says, "but at least the staffs are respected, and I'm respected in the sense that I'm told as much in advance as possible what's going to happen."
To illustrate the contrast, Brown recounts a luncheon he recently attended for the Science & Technology Committee of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The luncheon was organized by Brown's committee colleague, Republican Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York. "Boehlert introduced me, said many laudatory things, gave me the opportunity to speak. And when Sensenbrenner came in he did the same thing. Now they're treating me like an icon. My time is past, I'm no longer very important, but I'm a respected figure."
Most of Brown's energies during this Congress have been put into advancing his "investment budget" bill, which on paper achieves a 5% increase in federal R&D support while balancing the budget. He attempted to introduce it as an amendment to this year's budget resolution but it received only 91 votes. "The fatal flaw in my investment bill," he says, "is that it is too sensible. It seeks to defer tax cuts which both parties feel are very important."
Brown thinks it "fortunate" that the momentum to balance the budget has continued. "But some contend that the budget would be in balance now without any legislative action, if we didn't insist on the tax cuts. We're within $60 billion per year of balancing the budget, and my guess is that next year without the tax cuts and the increase in domestic discretionary spending we'd be reaching balance very quickly." He continues to support the research and development tax credit, "but its helpfulness to the R&D community is reduced over time. So it wouldn't make much difference if it were terminated after some optimal level of investment in R&D is reached."
Most lobbyists in Washington tend to minimize the importance of the budget resolution. Appropriations are the name of the game, they say. Congress can ignore the resolution if it wants. But Brown sees advantage in it. "You have to look at the whole process," he says. "The budget resolution is a part--not necessarily the most important part--of the budget process. It does set certain limits on what you can do in appropriations. It presents the opportunity to talk in terms of microeconomic policy, and it provokes a lot of debate."
Brown believes Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) has an opportunity to make an important contribution to science and technology policy through his task force, which will look at key science and technology issues over the long term. "Ehlers," Brown says, "should, without any difficulty, be able to assume the role of science and technology spokesman on the Republican side. It's a question of how far he wants to go. Next session he'll be a subcommittee chair, and he'll be a very influential spokesperson."
Will science and technology be an important part in the predicted race between Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) for the Democratic presidential nomination? "My guess," says Brown, "is that both will say very laudatory words about science and technology and will be sincere, but the actual results will be measured in the kinds of budgets they promote." Brown believes Gore and Gephardt could well wind up as running mates. "Gore would represent the intellectual base of the party, and Gephardt, the labor base. Both are moderates. Neither has any radical ideas."
Where is science and technology policy now historically? "We're in an era in which the envelope is much narrower. We're not going to engage in any very big fights. The fight over the Superconducting Super Collider, which we had here and which we could replicate with the Large Hadron Collider, we're not. We're going to cooperate with the European Union. We're trying to make the Space Station cooperation work. I think we'll do the same at some point with the fusion program. I think we'll move toward international cooperation on many large projects such as a follow-on to the Hubble telescope. I think a wider and wider circle of nations is going to be involved within the overall global R&D enterprise."
With such a global knowledge explosion, won't that modify the debate on how much the U.S. should be spending? "Yes," answers Brown, "that's what you're going to see. Science and technology is already international, it's not defined by prejudice or boundaries. The capable scientists go anywhere in the world, opening wedges to a global culture. The handicaps today to the expansion of science are based on myth and on cultures that are 1,000 years behind the times. That will change quite rapidly.