What does the new political landscape in Washington mean for U.S. science?
The U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C.
On the surface, the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives after the November 4th elections appears to mean leaner years ahead for investments in research and development (R&D). House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is vowing to reduce spending to Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 levels. If legislation to do that is enacted, the National Science Foundation (NSF) would suffer an 11 percent budget cut from its FY 2010 budget, and there would also be reductions of more than 14 percent to the budgets of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Long before the midterm elections, the political climate was trending away from stimulus spending and toward spending cuts and deficit reduction. A year ago, President Obama used his State of the Union address to call for a freeze on nonsecurity domestic discretionary spending.
More recently, the President instructed all federal agencies to submit initial budget proposals for 2012 that are at least 5 percent less than 2011 budget proposals. The rise of the "Tea Party" and the election of fiscally conservative senators such as Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has emboldened the ranks of those in Congress who favor deep spending cuts.
Key Science Players on Capitol Hill
Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas)
Chair, House Science and Technology Committee
Hall has been a member of the committee since being elected to Congress in 1980. In a statement released shortly after the election, Rep. Hall stated that "over the past few years, the unprecedented growth of the Federal government and the creation of multiple new and duplicative programs occurred without having first assessed the effectiveness and success of existing programs. My goal is to ensure science policy drives innovation and thereby the American economy. Federal investment in R&D must empower the free market, not interfere in it."
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson
Ranking Member, House Science and Technology Committee
Johnson is a long-term member of the committee and has focused her efforts on NASA. While running for the post, the Congresswoman stated that she "would continue to emphasize the need to invest in basic scientific research and development to support our nation's energy independence and security, to create new technologies, industries and jobs that will catalyze our nation's embattled middle class and fulfill a mission for the U.S. to lead the world in clean technology."
Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.)
With the recent retirement of Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and the defeat of Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Rush Holt is now the only Ph.D. physicist in the House of Representatives. Since his election to office in 1996, Holt has continued to push his colleagues for increased funding for R&D programs, and he has focused on enhancing science, technology, engineering and math education programs. He was the 2009 OSA Advocate of Optics.
Sen. John J. Rockefeller (D-W.V.)
Chair, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee
The Chairman has a broad array of issues under his jurisdiction. He has set the agenda for the committee, which includes protecting consumers, improving the economy, heightening the nation's security, building technology infrastructure and promoting transformative research. In 2010, his committee took the lead in passing the Reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act and NASA Reauthorization.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson
Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
Senator Hutchison is a strong advocate for NASA, given the location of Johnson Space Center in her home state. The Senator worked closely with Chairman Rockefeller on the passage of the Reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act and NASA Reauthorization. While Congress was moving away from manned space flight, she fought to save key portions of the Constellation program, including the Orion crew capsule.
Central to the Republican agenda is an effort to ban the longstanding practice of earmarks, whereby Congress directs federal agencies to fund particular "pet" projects. The Republican leadership has now embraced such a ban, and President Obama has called for reform of the practice as well. For science investments, this could prove challenging, given that many projects funded at universities through DOE or DOD have been the result of earmarks.
However, there may be a silver lining for science. This is because significant funding is awarded through competitive grants, and much of what isn't could be transitioned to peer-reviewed agency processes.
The biggest challenge will be simply to maintain robust investments to research and development—particularly for key programs at NSF, NIST and DOE's Office of Science—in a budget-cutting climate. However, here too there is reason to be hopeful.
In recent years, legislation related to bolstering science and technology has generally enjoyed broad bipartisan support. For example, President Bush worked with a Democratic-led Congress to pass the America COMPETES Act in 2007. COMPETES outlined bold investments in R&D by setting federal agencies such as the NSF, the Department of Energy and NIST on track to double their budgets over the next 10 years. Congress followed up with strong investments in each agency.
With the election of President Obama came continued investment efforts on behalf of R&D. President Obama proposed massive investments in R&D in each of his budget requests and infused NSF with an additional $2.5 billion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill.
"We have a great story to tell," said Alex Fong, past chair of OSA's Public Policy Committee. "Republicans and Democrats alike have recognized that R&D funding is inexorably linked to economic growth, innovation and job creation. I believe we can make a strong case that now would be the worst possible time to slash R&D investments."
While the near-term fate of NSF's and other agency's budgets are still months away, President Obama has cited energy and education legislation as two key areas where he believes bipartisan progress is possible. The No Child Left Behind Act, the nation's main education law for K-12 education programs, must be considered in this Congress. The law authorizes federally funded education programs that are administered by the states.
"Looking ahead, I believe we continue to have opportunities to expand federal investments in clean and renewable resources and to strengthen math and science education," said Fong.
With the 2012 U.S. presidential and congressional elections looming, the window for progress before intense political jockeying may be short. OSA is planning a series of events in 2011 to advocate for investments in R&D including Capitol Hill Day, a congressional briefing on optics, Optics Legislative Network Alerts and district meetings with key lawmakers.
Laura Kolton is OSA's director of government relations.