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Science chair in Congress urges long-term focus

A fresh debate on the future of US science policy opened Friday, Jan. 6, in the 104th Congress during a three-and-a-half hour oversight hearing by the House Committee on Science.

Under the disciplined gavel of new Chairman Robert S. Walker (R-PA), an 18-year member of the Committee, 24 members of Congress, including many newly elected representatives, engaged five agency heads in a general but friendly discussion of science and research policy; the role of the federal government in technology development--a certain point of partisan tension as this debate continues; environmental regulation and risk assessment; the role of the National Institute of Standards (NIST) and its Advanced Technology Program (ATP), and several district-specific issues.

The future implications of current government policies for the babies who will be the college class of 2015 was a frequent frame of reference for both witnesses and Congress members.

The tone of the morning's deliberations generally reaffirmed the historic bipartisan support for the federal government's role in long-term, basic research.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Walker proposed that the Committee adopt the goal of making the next century as exciting for those born in 2001 as this century has been for those born in 1901. Congress, like the private sector, is often shortsighted in failing to pay sufficient attention to the long term. "I intend," he said, "to focus on the long term and to ask where today's policies are taking us into the future."

Later, in his closing remarks, Rep. Walker returned to this theme. He asked participants to advise the Committee on what must be done for science as Congress restructures government. "We must think of a society restructured, one in which science is part of an exploring culture," he said.

He urged the agencies to consider new science-based approaches to the functions of government-for example, substituting research on clean fuels for rigid environmental regulatory regimes; better weather forecasting techniques achieved by taking advantage of the micro-miniaturization of our space assets, including the attachment of government weather monitoring devices to commercial communications satellites, and an improved focus on government's long-term investment in science, which he contrasted with recent attempts to impose near-term strategic objectives on science.

"I'm concerned about the basic research which will give us opportunities in 2015," he said. He also invited the witnesses to think of his own role and jurisdiction as somewhat broader than that defined by the "four walls" of the Science Committee. "I'm going to work with Bill Archer (chairman of the Ways and Means Committee) on science issues within the Ways and Means Committee," he promised.

Dr. John Gibbons, director of the Office of Science Technology and Policy in the White House, acknowledged the severe financial pressures on the research system, but assured the Committee that the administration has taken care not to sacrifice the nation's investments in the future. "We need to sustain these investments even in the face of tremendous downward pressures. We must resist the temptation to eat our seed corn or else we might find ourselves in a wholesale retreat from our future," he said.

In response, Rep. George Brown (D-CA), former chairman of the Committee, observed, "Your goals are impractical. You need a path to achieve them or I'll be as critical as any Republican. I won't like it, but I'll do it anyway."

The witnesses presented activist, forward-looking visions of each agency's role and the administration's science agenda. Several Representatives closely questioned Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, on risk assessment and specific examples of the agency's enforcement powers. Browner repeatedly stressed the EPA's enhanced commitment to basic research increases which she described as "fundamental" to the agency's mission. (She enthusiastically reported more than 1,000 responses via the Internet to an EPA e-mail announcement made just 10 days ago of a small new program of seed funding for graduate students.)

Others questioned Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown on his Department's activities with industry and its Advanced Technology Program (ATP). Rep. Constance Morella (R-MD), new chair of the Subcommittee on Technology, supported the program and invited her colleagues to visit NIST, which is located in her Maryland district.

Daniel Goldin, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, stressed the need for courage in making tough decisions necessary to sustain the space program. NASA and Congress must accept the need to be efficient, to prioritize, to measure output rather than inputs and to focus on the jobs to be created 20 years from now instead of how to maximize present employment. "We don't need thousands of people now at NASA Houston, a thousand at JPL watching spacecraft. Do we have the stomach to make the tough decisions?" he asked. In reply, Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN), announced his intention to sustain the effort to terminate the Space Station, and he predicted "inordinate" cuts for NSF.

Rep. John Olver (D-MA), who also serves on the House Budget Committee, asked for specific examples of successful R&D projects which are being undertaken jointly with foreign partners, especially Canada and Mexico. He predicted that the 104th Congress will need concrete examples of successful multi-national projects in which American science is serving as the driving force.

At the close of the hearing, freshman Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK), also a new member of the House Budget Committee, advised the agencies to "brace yourselves" because, he predicted, the Republican Congress will "right-size the federal government, with compassion" in order to "get the federal government off the backs of business."

Following the hearing, representatives of the university community noted an absence of direct criticism of the nation's universities, except for one comment by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), who restated his previous conviction that universities need to improve undergraduate instruction.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 11, 1995.

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