January/February 1999


Just two short years ago, headlines like "NSF Budget in Peril" and "Future of DOE Uncertain as White House, Congress Consider Spending Plans" elicited shudders among scientists throughout the nation. At that time, the Congress and the White House were dealing with annual budget deficits in the $200 billion range, and the government account which funds research and development was on the chopping block. Fortunately for all concerned about the nation's investment in research and development, the economy turned around and the deficit was eliminated, thanks primarily to a balanced budget package engineered by House and Senate Republicans.

As a result of those tough decisions there has been an amazing change in the last two years. Back during the 1996 and 1997 budget cycles scientists and engineers came to my boss, the late Representative Steve Schiff of New Mexico, then Chairman of the House Science Committee's Basic Research Subcommittee, confused and angry that the Congress could be so shortsighted as to reduce funding for civilian research and development. Mr. Schiff's response was twofold. First, he explained the budget process. He pointed out that the vast majority of the annual federal budget is allocated to mandatory programs such as veterans programs and social welfare programs. The second largest chunk is interest on the national debt, which is also mandatory in that it must be paid. The remaining thirty percent is national defense and other so-called discretionary programs, which include such things as transportation, education, and foreign aid. Civilian research and development programs must compete only within this smaller slice of the federal budget.

Second, and more importantly, Mr. Schiff explained that scientists' voices simply were not heard on Capitol Hill. By not heard, Mr. Schiff did not mean that legislators were not listening, but rather that most members and their staff rarely, if ever, heard from the science community. Further, oftentimes when staff were visited in our offices or received correspondence from scientists and engineers about projects, there seemed to be very little effort made to convince the Congress that the money spent on those projects was the best allocation of taxpayers' dollars. Rather, many who visited conveyed an attitude which suggested that any and all scientific research is good, necessary, and in the national interest, and those who could not see why were either stupid or wide-eyed ideologues.

Mr. Schiff told a story repeatedly to make this point: "... this case can be made with the Superconducting Super Collider as an example. Metaphorically, the Congress asked the managers of the SSC, 'What will we get if we finish funding this program?' And the answer the managers gave was, 'We may learn the secrets of the universe.' And Congress said, 'No, no, no. You don't understand. What will we get that is useful?' And the managers wouldn't or couldn't answer that question. Therefore, there is no more Superconducting Super Collider."

Many federal agencies and some scientists and engineers did get the message and rallied in response to the crisis. For the first time, many in the science community left their ivory towers and lobbied the Congress and the public in order to make the case for their research. They began to explain their projects in terms that convinced the Congress that the American people will receive a return on their investment. This does not suggest that research must have an easily identified, immediate application, but merely that scientists make an effort to explain how even the most basic of research can and does lead to better economic performance, improved health and livelihoods, a cleaner environment, or a more secure future.

Because of this effort, members of the Congress and their staff became more "educated" about the merits of scientific research as well as the number of their constituents affected by such research. This "lobbying" was effective.

A mere two years later, the science community is in danger of repeating history. We on Capitol Hill still do not hear often enough from the science community. Even on the staff of the Committee which authorizes basic research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), we hear too little from actual recipients of agency awards.

The science community needs to be more active. As Mr. Schiff always said, "just do it", that is, make an appointment with your representatives, come in, sit down, and tell them what you do. While it may puzzle many scientists and engineers that those who are not considered experts in science and technology make the laws and allocate the money to support or weaken the scientific enterprise, don't let that stop you from taking the first step. The truth is that most staff are well read on the issues and available to meet with those who are eager to share their knowledge. The science community must not fail to make its case to Washington and to the American people. Every other sector of American industry and academia lobbies the hill.

Yes, the economy is performing extremely well, and as long as it continues to do so the Congress will probably provide adequate funding for research and development. Common sense suggests, however, that at some point in the future there will be another recession. If by that time the science community has not communicated the importance of its work to the American people and to the Congress, then research and development will probably be facing the same severe budget cuts. I sincerely hope that the extremely bright, talented people who comprise this nation's scientific infrastructure will not do themselves, their work, and our nation a grave disservice by remaining silent.

Kristine Dietz
Basic Research Subcommittee
House Science Committee

At the time this opinion piece was received Kristine Dietz served as Professional Staff Member for the House Science Committee, with responsibility for NEHRP Reauthorization. She currently works for the New Mexico Congressional Delegation. This article expresses her personal opinions and not necessarily those of either the House Science Committee or the New Mexico Delegation.

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by email or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.

Posted: 22 January 1999