Remembering George E. Brown, Jr.
Issues is honored that the article on the Small Business Innovation Research program that George Brown coauthored with James Turner for the Summer 1999 Issues was the last article that Rep. Brown worked on before his death on July 15. As he did with so many topics, Rep. Brown approached the subject with deep knowledge, astute judgment, fearless independence, and an unshakable commitment to do what was right. It was not enough that the program provided support to small companies; he wanted to be certain that the money was spent on the best research and that it enhanced the quality of research performed by small firms. If he were still alive to work on the subject in Congress, he would also have engaged in the push and pull of congressional politics and accepted the practicality of compromise. But what was most admirable and memorable about Brown was that he always began with a vision of what was best and right. This caused no end of anguish for his staff, supporters, and allies. There was room for compromise in his life, but only after he had made clear his ideal solution.
Brown wrote several articles and numerous Forum comments for Issues. He wrote about the need to improve the quality of Third World science and about his notions of federal budgeting. He even wrote a book review. In a city of one-page briefing memos and staff-written speeches, it is difficult to imagine a member of Congress carefully reading an entire book and then sitting down himself to write about it, but it was perfectly in character for Brown
Brown was often introduced at conferences as science’s best friend in Congress, but if one listened to the comments in the hallway after his talks, it sometimes seemed that he was viewed as a traitor to the research community. In truth, Brown was the most knowledgable member of Congress on science and technology issues, but he was not and S&T lap dog. Although he believed firmly in the value of S&T to society, he did not put the well-being of S&T before the good of the nation. He understood that there are higher values than researcher autonomy. Scientists are wary whenever anyone suggests that science has any social purpose other than the advancement of scientific knowledge. Although Brown believed in the value of curiosity-driven research, he saw no inconsistency in also calling on scientists to use their research to help solve concrete world problems. Brown sincerely believed in the social responsibility of science, but he also understood that Congress and the public would be more willing to fund research if they could see more clearly the connection between research and practical benefits.
Even in death, his ideas inform our discussions. In preparing the articles for this issue I was not surprised to find several direct references to Brown’s work and ideas. Lewis Branscomb rightly invokes Brown’s commitment to the idea that scientific research should be linked to society’s goals. And in Norman Metzger’s discussion of earmarking, it would be impossible not to mention Brown, the most outspoken critic of the practice. Robert Rycroft and Don Kash cite Brown as the member of Congress most aware of the importance of worker training. It would have been just as appropriate to find references to his support for more stringent protection of the oceans and forests, the Landsat remote sensing program, and the nurturing of S&T expertise in the developing countries.
Other members of Congress will speak up for S&T interests, but no one will fill George Brown’s role. During 18 terms in Congress and two terms as chair of the House Science Committee, Brown grew into S&T’s advocate, conscience, philosopher, critic, and comic. The rumpled suit, the gnawed cigar, and the mischievous twinkle in the eye fit him alone.