Don't look now, but hidden behind the escalating conflict in Congress, a striking, if fragile, new spirit of bipartisanship is emerging over federal support for science and technology. Congress is a volatile place these days, passions are high, and the parties are split. So one can legitimately question how long this spirit will last.
But those Democrats and Republicans working toward it are serious and think they can succeed. They aim to spread the gospel of R&D throughout Congress and in the process end the bickering that left so many legislators bitter over Republican attempts in the last Congress to demolish the Clinton Administration's science and technology policy. Now a case can be made for an attempt by Republicans to adopt that policy with a few changes.
Leading the way are such legislators as Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a research surgeon and fast-rising star in the Senate, one who already is being touted as presidential material. Frist chairs the Subcommittee on Science, Technology & Space of the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee. Allied with him are Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), three highly influential Senate members. Frist has enlisted them as charter members of a science and technology caucus designed to forge a national science and technology policy that all parties, even the extremes, can agree on. He thinks it can be done.
On the House side, it is Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Science Committee, who has brought peace to that committee after two years of turmoil under the chairmanship of the since-departed Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.). Sensenbrenner is working closely with ranking Democratic member George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) to advocate a 3% growth for R&D spending over the next fiscal year, including a 7.2% rise for the National Science Foundation. Also leading the team is Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R- Mich.), a physicist who heads a task force that will be examining key science and technology issues over the long term.
The concept behind the new consensus is expressed by Lieberman, who has become the leading Democratic spokesman on R&D issues in the Senate. It is summed up in the concept of partnerships among government, universities, and industry. "In times of restricted budgets for all parties," says Lieberman, "partnerships provide leveraging opportunities for the nation to realize the greatest benefits from its investments. Also, past distinctions between the basic and applied sciences do not apply now." The principles--not truly new but newly synthesized--were spelled out in a recent Harvard University report, "Investing in Innovation," which has become must reading among R&D advocates on Capitol Hill.
Why the new cooperative spirit? Kathleen N. Kingscott, who heads congressional relations for IBM in Washington, D.C., and chairs a multicorporation technology group advocating support for federal technology programs, says it was an old idea that suddenly became popular again--with a difference. "We're going from a time of intense partisanship to a more thoughtful time," she says. "We're kind of coming back to where we've been, considering the political turmoil we've been through. One of the critical things has been the drumbeat by a whole bunch of people and organizations about the importance of technology and the need for new partnerships and collaborations."
The drumbeat came in the form of the Harvard paper, preceded by several related studies by prestigious organizations, and a continuous stream of meetings, conferences, roundtables, and lobbying efforts all focusing on the same theme: the loss of a precious, critical resource if the U.S. neglects its R&D garden. Along with this was the maturing of a technology policy that stressed the emerging world of partnership among researchers in government, industry, and universities-- not only in the U.S. but globally. What also helped, of course, was Clinton's victory in 1996. With that, the heavy barrage of attacks on all of his policies largely ceased.
"The time just came," says Kingscott, "to put all the rancor aside." But one bit of important business does remain, she says: a solution to what is called the "ATP problem." ATP, or the Advanced Technology Program, in the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards & Technology, is a cost-sharing grants program between NIST and industry grantees. Most of the high-tech industries like it; it is the Administration's technology policy linchpin. Yet many Republicans vehemently oppose it as "corporate welfare." Still, the Frist/ Ehlers group of legislators believes that with the right rejiggering, ATP can be saved. For example, the budget resolution approved earlier this month in Congress implicitly protects the program from elimination, but Republican appropriators remain unfriendly to it.
All R&D advocates, whether Republican or Democrat, know they have to work together to make the case for funding science and technology. They know that many members of Congress already appreciate the value of science and technology centers in their districts. They know, too, that most are familiar with the economic studies that correlate research funding with healthy economic growth. But they also know they must establish a coordinated policy that will hold together over the long term, one that will be cost-efficient for a period of flat funding for R&D.
For the next several years, money and resources for science and technology are going to shrink, if one takes seriously the balanced-budget resolution that both houses passed on June 5. Federal nondefense R&D comes under the category known as nondefense discretionary spending. The fiscal 1998 money pile for such spending is currently set at $244 billion and would rise to only $261 billion in fiscal 2002. Budget resolutions can change, however. Next year's is almost certain to be different.
For now, the figures seem grim for the science and technology establishment, especially those who do their work in universities. They see before them, when inflation is factored in, a 10 to 14% reduction in R&D funding through 2002.
So it is no wonder that the research and technology communities have launched unprecedented efforts to influence the appropriations process. It is why Rep. Brown has devised his own "investment budget" plan to provide 5% growth for R&D through cuts in weapons spending. It is why hundreds of lobbyists and advocates for R&D stay up late at night devising ways to influence the process.
It is also why crazy things can happen. One crazy thing already has. It comes in the form of an authorization bill introduced early this year by Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) calling for a doubling of federal R&D funding over the next 10 years. In ordinary times, such a bill, essentially representing an annual increase of 7%, wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. But this one came from such far-flung political territory that it brought bemused smiles of delight to the science advocacy community in Washington.
Gramm is a tax-cutting senator, notorious for his attacks on government spending. Usually rigorous with his numbers, he has yet to explain where the extra R&D money will come from. But he is seeking help from Democrats to cosponsor his bill, S. 58. Analysts stress that it is mere authorization legislation, without enough support at this stage to influence the appropriations committee process or gain floor support. But Gramm believes that with enough supporters, it will carry influence, if not in appropriations, then on the Senate floor. So far, there is no companion bill in the House.
The Gramm bill illustrates what a quirky place Capitol Hill can be. Next year, a new budget resolution will be formulated. It could be wholly different from this year's, especially if the budget moves toward balance, as it apparently is doing now, or if the cost of living drops a fraction of a percent. It might even be that the next Congress could scuttle the whole idea of a balanced budget and simply go back to the raw discipline of appropriations. But that isn't likely. The public wants an end to government growth, and the Clinton Administration has long since climbed aboard the train.
For science and technology, the conclusion is obvious: Living with a no-growth R&D budget over the next few years will necessitate a radical transformation of the U.S. research system and require a government consensus over how to redraft policy in austere times. This is the drama to watch. All signs from the R&D lobby groups indicate it is a drama for everyone to take a role in, to invent new approaches, especially the research community itself.
Several advocacy or lobby groups are leading the way. Research America, based in Alexandria, Va., focuses mainly on the biomedical research budget. The Science Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., covers all the sciences. The Coalition for Technology Partnerships, also based in Washington, is made up of leading high-technology firms and advocates continued support for ATP. A fourth, more loosely organized group, is made up of 46 scientific and engineering societies--one of which is the American Chemical Society. A fifth, the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, weighs in with its own program. The Association of American Universities lobbies Congress for a strong Defense Department research budget, among other areas. It is, however, the only group advocating support for defense R&D in universities.
If there was any one event that jolted the research and engineering community to a higher level of activity, it was a speech given by NSF Director Neal F. Lane at the 1996 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A glum Lane delivered that talk in the immediate aftermath of the three government shutdowns that proved unpopular with the American public and, to some extent, turned the tide back in favor of Democrats. Stunned by the lack of public concern at NSF's cessation of operations, Lane attempted to rally researchers to the need to make their work known to Congress and the larger public. Otherwise, Lane implied, the U.S. could fast become a second-rate scientific nation.
The effort to restore the dialogue over science and technology policy and design a new architecture began in the House Science Committee, where conditions hit bottom last year. Sensenbrenner took over the chairmanship from Walker, who--by his ideological, confrontational approach to his chairmanship--left that committee fractionated and demoralized. Walker not only alienated senior Democrats on the committee, led by Brown, but also Republican members, and several Republican senators, to boot. With that legacy, some have commented, it is not exactly shocking that he decided last year not to run for another term.
"When it became apparent that I was going to become chairman of the committee last summer," Sensenbrenner recalls, "I started out by having a number of very quiet meetings with George Brown, basically asking him how we could work together to advance science on a bipartisan basis. I wanted to eliminate the procedural squabbles the committee had gotten itself bogged down in, not just during the last two years but probably a year and a half to two years before the Republican takeover."
He says he also instructed his staff director, Todd Schultz, to do the same thing with Schultz's Democratic staff counterpart, Robert E. Palmer.
Sensenbrenner says the Democrats on the committee were skeptical that any smoothing of the waters could take place. But he says he fooled them. "The real seminal change where I showed them that I was serious," he says, "was in asking them to sign the Budget Views & Estimates that called for a 3% increase per year in science funding and agreeing to a couple of modifications they had proposed." Views & Estimates are agency funding estimates that authorization committees are required to submit to budget committees each year.
Then came the coup that really established a strong bipartisan mood on the committee: the first set of House authorizations that actually preceded appropriations. "When we saw the budget was going to be delayed," says Sensenbrenner, "I went to Brown and said, 'Let's do the authorization work based on a 3% increase and see if we can pop them through the committees and onto the floor,' so we could put in a marker for science before the Budget Committee actually got down to discussing numbers." A marker is getting the House on record in support of a budget figure.
"So," recounts Sensenbrenner, "we got the whole bunch of authorization bills out in about eight-and-a-half hours. We had some legitimate debates over policy such as the space station and ATP, and everyone worked together. Six bills that did not require a sequential referral ended up being passed. The narrowest vote, I believe, was 422-to-7."
The final thing Sensenbrenner says he did was appoint Ehlers as vice chairman of the Science Committee. Ehlers is regarded as one of the most thoughtful members of the House. But lacking in seniority, he needed a position to give his ideas more prominence. Sensenbrenner and House Speaker Newt Gingrich thus made him committee vice chairman and gave him the additional job of chairing a task force to take a sweeping look at the R&D enterprise, something the committee has done several times in the past.
"I have asked Vern to do three things," says Sensenbrenner. "First, I want him to liaise with the scientific community. Vern is a nuclear physicist by profession. He knows the language of science, has the background and has rapport, and I want him to have a two-way dialogue with the scientific community. Second, I want him to work with it in developing an overall science policy, basically a vision and a direction of where the government, academia, and the private sector can go all at the same time. Another thing I detailed Vern to do is to be a point man in terms of improving math and science education from grade school to graduate school. This is the most important of all."
Ehlers' task force is at an early stage. A staff director is about to be chosen, and a group from industry, universities, and government will be assembled for a roundtable meeting early in the fall.
He speaks very generally about his task. Ehlers says he hopes to be able to "make some sense" out of the government's approach toward science and technology. "We want to rethink what has happened under the old so-called Vannevar Bush model that came into being 50 years ago. We live in a different world now. We can no longer sell science by saying we can't be second place to the Russians. We are no longer engaged in a military contest per se with the other major nations. We're engaged in an economic contest.
"Another change is that we're in the era of severe budget problems due to the rapid growth of entitlements. The entire discretionary and defense budget, which is really what Congress controls and uses to run the country, is now only 30% of the total budget. Back in 1962, it was 75%, and that has created probably the greatest difficulty. So there are some major changes in what has happened, and I'm hoping to try to make sense out of science policy as it relates to that.
"A further factor is that Congress is now at the point where it's saying that scientific basic research is good, applied research is not, as far as federal funding is concerned. And so we have Congress trying to kill ATP. At the same time, the president regards it as the cornerstone of his policy and is trying to give it a far greater increase than he's given any other science and technology effort. We all have to try to define what our policy is on that."
Much further along than Ehlers' task force is the science and technology caucus established by Frist. His caucus--for now, consisting of himself, Domenici, Lieberman, and Rockefeller--met in March for an afternoon roundtable on science and technology and has produced a short report outlining where it should head.
"This caucus," Frist stresses, "is strictly bipartisan and really reaches out to people to look at the longer term." Frist makes a point of his background as a transplant surgeon with considerable research experience and peer-reviewed publications to his credit. He received his bachelor's degree at Princeton, his medical degree at Harvard, did research at Stanford and at Massachusetts General Hospital, and was on the faculty at Vanderbilt.
"I'm very concerned," he says, "with the trends in the national budget that have gradually squeezed the discretionary component of R&D." Frist says that he intends to try to "educate the scientific community very directly to understand that expanding entitlements mean shrinking R&D. Technology and science support is going to get increasingly difficult over the next 10 years unless we at the grass roots address the unfettered expansion of entitlements."
Frist uses a delicate logic to make the case for science and technology in the current climate for R&D. He says the solution to entitlements involves continuing new approaches to welfare, housing, and health care. But the real key is a growing economy. And the key to a growing economy, not surprisingly, is R&D. He realizes the payoffs are not immediate, but R&D does deliver over time. That is his rhetorical challenge with the caucus. "I need to make that case to my colleagues on an ongoing basis, not just saying science is good, but making the case that it is needed for the growth of the economy."
Frist does not oppose ATP, but he admits that winning his colleagues over will be rough sledding. "This is where the caucus hearings will be important," he says. "They will be important to hear the stories, hear the anecdotes of the constituents at the grassroots level. Among some in Congress, there's this initial gut reaction about giving money to places that should supply their own funding. We have to sort through that. It's going to take a little bit of time. That's where the politics start getting involved."
After the appropriations process, when the budgets for fiscal 1998 are set, Frist says the caucus will start thinking about longer term issues such as a biennial budget for science and technology. But the key element in the caucus will be its makeup. With Domenici as a member, Frist has the advantage of having both a staunch budgeteer and a supporter of federal R&D. Rockefeller and Lieberman are true-blue protechnology Democrats. Frist will be picking others in the Senate and House for their positions on key appropriations, finance, and budget committees to ensure that the dialogue reaches into regions not accustomed to dealing specifically with R&D.
"The importance of the caucus," he says, "is that we can bring in finance committee people, and the appropriators, people interested in science within other committees. The caucus allows you to cut through the contrived politics that sometimes occupies the committees. You can sit down more informally, make the case, and get the ideas out. If you have the key budget, appropriations, and finance people on it, that's a real advantage."
At the moment, the hottest technology policy property on Capitol Hill is a paper recently issued by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in a project headed by emeritus professor Lewis M. Branscomb (C&EN, May 5, page 43). It was supported by the Competitiveness Policy Council, which, after seven years, closed shop at the end of June. Both Ehlers and Frist have been briefed by Branscomb and believe the ideas in his paper could well bring about a reconciliation of politically different views on technology policy and ATP. Those connected with Frist's caucus know that ATP will have to change if it is to survive. As one staffer points out, "We've had a lot of discussions about ATP, about how it will continue to serve as a lightning rod if it isn't fixed. It's been terribly divisive."
Branscomb's paper, "Investing in Innovation," derived from a conference last November in Washington. It addresses a "consensus strategy" for technology across a range of issues. Mostly, it attempts to make the case for the lack of borders between basic science and technology, that the more complete picture is one of dynamic interfaces between all disciplines that relate to a problem. It points out that different technologies call for specific policies because the relationships between academia, government, and industry along particular lines of technology are different.
But most significantly, where politics is concerned, it attempts to smooth the political waters around ATP by suggesting that the proper approach to government support for advanced technology in industry would be to focus more on smaller companies whose research could lead to important new products. It would also attempt to involve companies in consortia for the sharing of ideas between companies of all sizes. A third approach, according to the Branscomb report, would draw more political appeal to ATP by bringing states into the selection process. In that way, ATP would more resemble NIST's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), which has technology-transfer facilities in most of the states. Republicans by and large have not opposed the MEP program.
Branscomb says the reception to his paper has been positive because "many of the influential members of Congress have put their ideological beliefs behind them and gotten to real discussions of policy. Many believe ATP is at the center of this controversy over technology policy and are working to make changes in the program."
He finds it interesting that the use of the term corporate welfare to denigrate ATP was originally coined by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to criticize tax breaks and other forms of subsidy that benefited large corporations. "The term," he observes, "was quickly taken over by Republican conservatives" in their attack on ATP. He says senators such as the Republican Domenici and Democrat Jeff Bingaman, who also represents New Mexico, want to change ATP so that-- unlike most current ATP projects--the fruits of its projects benefit more than just one company.
Branscomb also acknowledges that the current era of good feeling is indeed fragile. "It's fragile to the extent that it depends on only a few individuals," he says, "But it happens that these individuals are very important players in Congress. The fact that Brown and Sensenbrenner are working together is an extraordinarily beneficial thing."
In any case, the Frist caucus and Ehlers task force will undoubtedly assess various renderings of government, university, and industry combinations--what patterns can help, which types of partnerships could retard innovation, which types are indeed corporate welfare, whether partnerships are damaging free inquiry in universities.
Is it time, then, to bring out the champagne? Howard F. Rosen, who was director of the Competitiveness Policy Council and conducted several studies on technology and the economy during his tenure there, doesn't think so. He too believes the new consensus is a very fragile one. He thinks the evidence of peace breaking out has almost strictly political roots having more to do with Clinton's reelection in 1996 than any new congressional perceptions. "To my thinking," says Rosen, "the reason the Republicans opposed those technology programs was that they were identified with Clinton. When the election was over, there was no need to attack those programs anymore."
It remains to be seen, says Rosen, how the Republicans react to individuals the Clinton Administration appoints to key technology spots now vacant in the Commerce Department (undersecretary for technology) and the Defense Department (director for research, development, and advanced technology). And, in fact, whether ATP will be funded.
"But my major question," he says, "is whether technology policy is a path to something broader. If, for example, you want to have a trade policy, you have a technology policy, and so on down the line. That will be the test."
Another concern comes from Jerold Roschwalb, who heads the federal relations office for the National Association of State Universities & Land-Grant Colleges. Roschwalb believes generally that the depth of feeling for the importance of science and basic technology has been lost over the past four years and needs to be recovered. "Except for a few people," he says, "this Congress lacks the know-how, the deep sense of politics and governance that Congresses in the past had. It's a lack of leadership. I believe the leading democracy on Earth should be prohibited from being afraid--of compromising, learning new things, dealing on equal par with the presidency, and looking to the next election all the time. Too much is based on appearances. [Congress is] supposed to be working on a balanced budget, but for the most part [it's] really squeezing it."
The problem may simply be that legislators are constantly tired, constantly bombarded by issues too complex to grasp quickly, distracted by perpetual squabbling, and hobbled by staff too inexperienced to offer the wisdom and savvy needed for such times. One veteran Republican staffer says Congress is undergoing a drastic "generational change." Ten years ago, he says, 10% of the House Science Committee would change from election to election. "Now," he says, "of the 46 members of the committee, 10 are freshmen and 18 are sophomores. The problem for them is developing a sufficient level of knowledge in science and technology so they can effectively engage the issue.
"Clinton's election in 1992 was the first step in that generational change," he says. "All these new people are now coming in. They're not dumb. They get into instant dialogue. They build coalitions to get behind proposals. They think a lot differently and look at the world a whole lot differently from the previous generation. But they don't seem to integrate what they see. We need a core of people who will be here long enough to put in place long-term policies."
But the news isn't all blue. The new members of Congress, according to one science lobbyist, are fast learners. The Science Coalition's Polly Gault, who worked for several years on committees in Congress, says she is impressed with how quickly new members have come to understand the role of science and technology in the economy, especially their local economies.
"There's been incredible turnover of members since 1989," she says. "And the speed with which they have educated themselves to economic issues is amazing. They are hungry for information. They are interested in anything they can learn and do to promote a healthy economy, particularly for their districts back home. They've been very receptive to anyone who puts time and effort into talking to them about science and technology. They really like to hear local stories about how science funding has made an impact on their areas."
So what will it be? A science policy for the new millennium? A technology policy for the global future? A new social contract between scientists, engineers, and the American public? The answer could be all of them and more. New arrangements are taking shape in scientific and technological institutions in the U.S. Leaders in Congress will be examining the good and not-so-good aspects of those arrangements once they define what exactly they are, once it is known whether this new mood achieves momentum.