Science Fiction

George W. Bush is getting lots of credit for giving the National Institutes of Health (NIH) their biggest boost ever, but his increases in spending on research in health care and defense are obscuring drastic cuts in all other kinds of scientific research. When you look closely at Bush's science budget, what you discover is wildly skewed priorities. You also discover what is becoming increasingly obvious--that Bush is not a new type of Republican but a typical country club conservative who is determined to eliminate government regulation of business and to cut spending except on programs that favor his large campaign contributors.

To appreciate how conservative Bush's science budget is, you have to look first at what happened to federal spending on science over the last decade. Spending on science reached a peak in 1993. It plummeted under the Republican Congress that came to power in November 1994; but then it revived in the last two years of Bill Clinton's second term to the level it was in 1993. By last year, there was a bipartisan majority in the Senate that passed a bill mandating that all civilian research--not just that on health care--be doubled. But Bush's science budget goes squarely back to those promoted by Speaker Newt Gingrich after the Republicans took over the House. Like Gingrich, he dramatically expands health care research--which is politically popular--while cutting just about everything else except for research on defense.

In his budget, Bush proposes a $5.2-billion overall increase in federal spending in research and development (R and D), but it would be entirely absorbed by an increase of $3.6 billion in defense spending and $2.7 billion in health care spending. Studies of the earth, the air, water, outer space, and high technology, as well as higher mathematics and theoretical physics, would be curbed. According to a preliminary study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), "excluding NIH, all other non-defense R&D would fall by 4.2 percent to $24.3 billion, a loss of $1.1 billion."

Even if you accept Bush's priorities, that's a mistake. Many military innovations--such as the use of liquid crystal display screens in jet fighters--come from the civilian sector. There are now probably more civilian spin-offs to defense than vice versa. And many of the innovations that have improved medical care--from the X ray to the CAT scan--originate in other disciplines. Former NIH Director Harold Varmus has made this point repeatedly. "Medical advances may seem like wizardry," he wrote last October. "But pull back the curtain, and sitting at the lever is a high-energy physicist, a combinational chemist or an engineer." Even Gingrich has acknowledged the error of his ways. In a speech last year to the AAAS, he said: "To double NIH without doubling the broad base of science means in the long run we will cripple the evolution of science, because NIH cannot, in the long run, progress beyond physics, chemistry, mathematics, etcetera."

But the priorities themselves are wrong. Reversing the 15-year trend toward parity between civilian and defense R-and-D spending, the Bush budget puts military back in the lead. Most of the increased military R and D will go into the black hole of national ballistic-missile defense rather than into technology that could actually be used by our armed forces, whether in limited interventions or in peacekeeping operations. And civilian science is important for other things besides fighting disease: for producing more useful goods with less labor, for conserving natural resources, and for curtailing damage to the environment, to list just a few. In his last budget, Clinton sought a "balanced research portfolio, because the research enterprise is increasingly interdependent." Bush abandons that effort and goes back to the budgets of the mid-1990s.

Bush's budget would affect more than what researchers do now. It would also shape science well into the future by influencing students' decisions about which fields to pursue. As Anthony Shadid has reported in The Boston Globe, the number of new science and engineering doctorates in the United States reached a six-year low in 1999. Predictably, the one exception was biology and bioengineering. As the nonpartisan researchers at the National Research Council and AAAS will tell you, these trends will only worsen under the kind of budget that the administration is proposing.

If you now look even more closely at exactly what kinds of cuts Bush is making, the conservatism of the former oilman oozes even more clearly into view. Just about every research program related to environment, climate, and energy conservation is either cut or eliminated. Spending for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development is reduced 6.1 percent. Spending on biological and environmental research at the Department of Energy would fall 8.2 percent. Funding for the U.S. Global Change Research Program would shrink 4.4 percent. And energy conservation also gets short shrift. The Department of Energy's conservation budget would decline nearly 25 percent; funding for solar and other renewable energy would drop by more than a third.

Bush would also cut many government subsidies for high-technology industries, assistance he sees as unwarranted government intervention. A prime target in the administration's budget is the Advanced Technology Program (ATP), which Congress established in 1990 within the Commerce Department to provide funding for "generic, pre-competitive technologies." (These technologies have included new methods of manufacturing the silicon wafers in computer chips as well as research into new materials for building bridges.) After the first Bush administration resisted funding ATP, Clinton dramatically increased funding from $68 million in fiscal year 1993 to $431 million in 1995, but the Republican Congress dropped funding of ATP to $192.5 million by 1998. George W. Bush wants to eliminate the program entirely. Under his budget, the program would make no new awards and would merely pay out its commitments. As Rob Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute has remarked, Bush has revived the earlier Bush administration's view that there is no economic difference between a potato chip and a computer chip.

Conservatives argue that government spending on high technology isn't necessary because private indus-try will take up the slack. Private industry did sharply boost R-and-D spending in the late 1990s, but that was in the midst of an unusual economic boom. Over the next decade, American business will likely find itself in the same position as it was before 1996--in need of support and inspiration from government-funded science. Even if the Cato Institute's conservatives don't get it, business leaders understand that without government research support, the United States would not have had the world's leading aircraft or computer industries. This February an industry group that included Intel and 3Com wrote Bush that "the evidence is clear that federally supported science R&D provides the very foundation for industry efforts that create ... productivity-enhancing technologies."

While cutting ATP and other Commerce Department programs, Bush rewards his favorite industries. He wants to increase the money for fossil-fuel research and to gut research into alternative sources of energy. He proposes preserving--and cutting by only 7.4 percent--one program that Cato conservatives have been right to target for elimination: the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. This eight-year program, designed to help General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler produce a more fuel-efficient car, has provided the auto companies with a pretext for blocking tougher fuel-efficiency standards. It has squandered $15 billion--while the Japanese have been actually producing a new generation of fuel-efficient cars. But the carmakers were major contributors to Bush's campaign, and their chief lobbyist was Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff.

Perhaps the best indication of the president's sorry attitude toward science is his appointments. While Clinton appointed a director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in December 1992, a month before he was inaugurated, Bush has yet to select one. As of this writing, Bush has also not filled the top job at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the two top positions at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; nor has he appointed an undersecretary of technology at the Commerce Department or a director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. He has made one science appointment: Richard Russell to be chief of staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology. Russell was deputy chief of staff of the House of Representatives' science committee when Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner was the chairman. Last fall Sensenbrenner was singly responsible for killing in the House the Senate bill that would have doubled civilian research. Committee staffers recall Russell as being, above all, eager to pursue partisan investigations of the Clinton administration.

The one bright spot in this dark picture is that Republicans in Congress will not accept Bush's know-nothing and narrowly political attitude toward science. In April the Senate passed a budget amendment by Republican Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri raising spending by $1.44 billion for the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Energy--the three main funders of nondefense R and D. Bond and Tennessee Republican Bill Frist stand ready to join Democrats in fighting to revise the Bush priorities. In the House, New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert has replaced Sensenbrenner as the chairman of the science committee. Boehlert and his new staff director, David Goldston, have already criticized Bush's plan to focus civilian research on NIH. "One agency growing quicker than the others doesn't really seem very fair," Goldston told the AAAS at a meeting this April.

But congressional Republicans will be constrained in what they can do by Bush's overall budget. By allocating $1.6 trillion to tax cuts over the next decade, Bush has severely limited increases in any kind of discretionary social spending. To make room for the tax cuts, Bush has proposed holding such spending, which is a third of the budget, to an increase of only 4 percent, or $26 billion for FY2002. The Defense Department and the Department of Education absorbed most of that increase, leaving very little for civilian research. If the Republicans aren't prepared to revise the overall framework of Bush's budget--including his egregious tax cuts--as well as the details, they will be forced to endorse the president's reactionary priorities.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

, after login or registration your account will be connected.