Science’s Growing Political Strength

The past decade has been a period of significant change in science, science policy, and science advocacy. Terms such as bioinformatics, Bose condensates, genomics, nanotechnology, supersymmetries, and wavelets, which were barely in the lexicon 10 years ago, are buzzwords of the 21st century. The White House has shifted from Republican to Democrat to Republican, with accompanying upheavals in policy and management priorities. Most important, scientists have become much more politically savvy, developing effective advocacy groups that drive federal policies and budgets through grassroots lobbying, media initiatives, and Capitol Hill events.

As with most issues, miscues often precede progress, and science policy in the 1990s was no exception. Among the early changes implemented by the Clinton-Gore administration was the replacement of the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (FCCSET) by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), chaired by President Clinton. Unfortunately, he found little time to devote to the NSTC; and in our opinion, some important cooperation and communication among the 20-some federal agencies and the more than 2,000 federal scientists and engineers who were involved were lost, together with the feeling of agency pride and positive peer pressure that characterized the FCCSET subcommittees.

The pressure to constrain spending is very strong and is likely to remain so for years to come.

During his first term, Clinton missed an additional opportunity by not meeting with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). As his second term opened, however, he began to focus some attention on science. It was not accidental. William Curry, who joined the White House as a domestic policy advisor in January 1997, wanted to put the issue on the president’s agenda. President Clinton met with PCAST early in his second term, and by the time Neal Lane took over as presidential science advisor in August 1998, a fresh policy direction was evident. At the same time, a newly active science community played a vital role.

Budget trends

Presidential budget requests generally provide the basis for congressional appropriations. Clinton’s first-term science policies are evident in the FY 1994­1997 budgets. With the United States no longer facing a threat from the Soviet Union, federal investment in the major science and technology agencies declined. Concern about research support began to spread throughout the scientific community in 1995, leading some science organizations to consider tentatively entering the realm of lobbying.

By 1996, concern had grown into anxiety, driven by a June 1996 budget analysis prepared by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which projected a 25 to 30 percent constant-dollar decrease in federal science and technology support between FY 1995 and FY 2000–a decrease that would have forced draconian cuts in almost every scientific program and jeopardized U.S. leadership internationally.

Reacting in part to the AAAS forecast, five Republican senators, led by Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), submitted legislation in January 1997 that called for doubling the nondefense federal science and technology budget over the following decade. By that time, the American Physical Society (APS), under the leadership of its president (D. Allan Bromley) and its director of public affairs (Michael S. Lubell), had already initiated a multisociety campaign to address federal research spending. From a founding group of six societies, the coalition quickly grew to 23 members. On March 4, 1997, the coalition announced its support for a 7 percent across-the-board increase for science and engineering research in the FY 1998 budget, noting that “scientific disciplines are interdependent; therefore, a comprehensive approach to science funding provides the greatest opportunity for reaching these goals.”

The coalition leaders noted that technology and its fundamental scientific underpinning accounted for more than 50 percent of growth in gross domestic product (GDP) in the postwar years, but the federal investment in R&D, as a fraction of GDP, was falling rapidly. The 50 percent decline from the mid 1960s, they asserted, was jeopardizing the U.S. economic future. Support for the coalition grew quickly, and its membership doubled by the beginning of April.

Congress listened. The full Congress approved an FY 1998 budget increase of almost 7 percent for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) basic energy sciences, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as about 4 percent for most other research activities.

In October, Senators Gramm, Lieberman (D-Conn.), Domenici (R-N.M.), and Bingaman (D-N.M.) introduced the National Research Investment Act of 1998 (dubbed Gramm-Lieberman), which called for a doubling of federal research support over the next decade. The coalition, now grown to 110 societies representing more than 3.5 million scientists and engineers, supported the bill. This was the first time that the U.S. scientific societies had ever come together in support of a joint statement on behalf of all of science and technology. Assisted by the Senate S&T Caucus, chaired by Senators Frist (R-Tenn.) and Lieberman, the coalition’s leaders were able to schedule a meeting with Clinton administration officials in December at which they made the case for increased research spending.

President Clinton’s FY 1999 budget, released in February 1998, contained significant increases for research: NSF (11.3 percent), DOE science (9.7 percent), NIH (8.4 percent), NASA space science (3.8 percent), overall basic research (7.6 percent), overall university research (6 percent) and overall peer-reviewed R&D programs (6 percent). However, with the scent of the 1998 election strongly in the air, the Clinton budget was certain to become a candidate for partisan wrangling, and water projects and veterans’ hospitals, among others, trumped science as potent political deliverables.

In an effort to win more support from fiscal conservatives, Senators Frist and Rockefeller (D-W.V.) introduced the Federal Research Investment Act with 34 bipartisan cosponsors. This bill extended the doubling time to 12 years and required that “the federal research portfolio will be well-balanced among the scientific and engineering disciplines, and geographically dispersed throughout the states.” The growing support for research was reflected in the FY 1999 budget, which included increases for NSF (8.4 percent), DOE science (8.7 percent), NIH (14.1 percent), NASA space science (4.9 percent), and overall basic research (11.3 percent).

On the heels of these increases, the Clinton White House–now under the direction of Chief of Staff John Podesta, a research advocate who had been installed as in October 1998–began to develop FY 2000 science budgets that sustained the growth, although at a somewhat more modest pace. The president’s February 1999 budget provided increases of 4 to 7 percent for most major civilian research functions. NIH (a 2.1 percent increase) was the exception. White House advisors believed that Congress would keep NIH on the doubling track without any need for presidential pressure. They proved to be right.

By the summer of 1999, at the urging of some fiscal conservatives who opposed discretionary budget increases, Congress was poised to trim the president’s proposed science budget, but the science and engineering community used its agency-specific advocacy coalitions to press the case on Capitol Hill with letter-writing campaigns and personal visits.

The next month, with the assistance of Senators Lott (R-Miss.) and Daschle (D-S.D.), the Senate unanimously passed the Federal Research Investment Act of 1999, which called for doubling of the federal science budget by the year 2010. Although the House took no corresponding action, the bill still proved to be a useful advocacy tool. Appropriators dropped plans for major research cuts, providing FY 2000 increases for NSF (8.4 percent), NIH (14.1 percent), NASA space science (2.1 percent), and overall basic research (10.6 percent). But the physical sciences still lost ground, and the research portfolio became more unbalanced, with DOE science slipping 0.3 percent and the NSF funds tilting toward the biological sciences.

As 2000 approached, the advocacy communities swung into high gear, targeting the White House with a letter-writing campaign. Podesta, Lane, and Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew became allies, and President Clinton, in his last year in office, began to address the imbalance, proposing many major increases for FY 2001: NSF (19.8 percent), DOE science (12.6 percent), NIH (5.8 percent), NASA space science (9.4 percent), and overall basic research (6.8 percent).

Desiring to leave Washington on a positive note before the 2000 elections, Congress responded with FY 2001 increases for NSF (11.9 percent), DOE science (11.7 percent), NIH (14.4 percent), NASA space science (4.0 percent), and overall basic research (8.8 percent). The science and engineering communities had finally captured the attention of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but shortly they would face stiff new challenges.

In January 2001, the White House changed parties. Throughout his campaign, George W. Bush had emphasized four issues that he considered of greatest importance to the nation: a $1.5 trillion tax cut, a first-class education for every child, a restructured military with state-of-the-art technology, and improved health care for every American. He reemphasized them in A Blueprint for New Beginnings, which he submitted to Congress on February 28, 2001. We believe that these are laudable goals. But they depend on sustaining strong economic growth and a reliable stream of federal revenues, which, in turn, require federal investments in science and engineering, as the Gramm-Lieberman and Frist-Rockefeller bills detailed.

We were very distressed by the FY 2002 budget outline presented by the President’s Blueprint. In our opinion, it badly shortchanged most research programs. Congress agreed, and bipartisan support for research led to FY 2002 budget increases for NSF (11.9 percent), DOE science (2.5 percent), NIH (15.8 percent), NASA space science (8.5 percent), and overall basic research (10.6 percent).

White House science budget policies remained unchanged for FY 2003. President Bush called for an increase for NIH but essentially flat funding for other research. The science and engineering community, now more effectively organized for political action, quickly organized a campaign to increase research funding (APS members alone sent 7,000 communications to Capitol Hill), and once again the effort succeeded. Although funding for DOE science remained flat, other agencies received healthy increases: NSF (11.3 percent), NIH (15.3 percent), NASA space science (22.5 percent, with launch costs now included), and overall basic research (9.2 percent).

On October 16, 2002, PCAST submitted a report to the White House urging major increases for the physical sciences and engineering to address the portfolio imbalance and workforce needs. However, with the economy in the doldrums, war and homeland security costs mounting rapidly, and the federal budget facing historic deficits–a dramatic reversal of the fortunes of the 1990s–President Bush submitted an austere FY 2004 budget for civilian activities. Science budgets, by and large, would not keep pace with inflation; some agencies would see their budgets fall. Although Congress could reverse the downward slide in the coming months, the pressure to constrain spending is very strong. And it is likely to remain so for years to come unless economic growth and productivity rebound dramatically.

It is imperative that the advocacy groups spawned during the past decade galvanize their members and convince both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that the message contained in a March 5, 2001, New York Times op-ed (by D. Allan Bromley), “No science, no surplus,” remains as true today as it was 2 years ago or 20 years ago. The future of the United States depends on strong federal investment in research. “It’s that simple.”

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Cite this Article

Bromley, D. Allan, and Michael S. Lubell. “Science’s Growing Political Strength.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003