Science Under Attack

The results of the November 2 elections will transform the House of Representatives from a pro-science chamber to one that is at worst overtly hostile to federal research and education programs or at best highly skeptical of their worth.  Although some new members will submit bills to eliminate the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, the bills will almost certainly fail.  However, the rhetoric surrounding them will likely lead to a nasty legislative environment for science.

Currently, the leadership of the new House majority is not supporting legislation to eliminate federal agencies, but it is firmly committed to rolling back federal spending to FY 2008 levels.  With national security spending mostly exempt, civilian programs, science among them, could take a 25 percent hit.  And even though the Senate and the White House will push back strongly, budgets might be trimmed to some degree either through a compromise on appropriations bills or through Continuing Resolutions at FY 2010 levels or slightly below.  Under a string of CR’s, no new projects would be allowed to start, and money from completed projects could not be reprogrammed.

The House will also almost certainly use its investigative powers to keep presidential appointees on the hot seat. Energy Secretary Steve Chu will likely be among those grilled multiple times on climate change, Energy Hubs and Energy Frontier Research Centers.  Finally, some of the House freshmen who received strong backing from the Tea Party will attack federal spending on projects located abroad, among them LHC and ITER.  The attacks will fail, but their anti-science fallout could be significant.

Since many of the new members of the House and Senate have a strong anti-Washington tilt, they will only be solicitous of their own constituents, and then mostly in the context of jobs.  If APS members care about science, their own research programs, their own jobs and the future of their colleagues and students, they will have to make visits to the district and state offices of their senators and representatives starting now.  And they will have to keep reminding their elected officials about the importance of their work for the future of the American economy and for national security.


  1. Posted November 17, 2010 at 3:56 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Michael Lubell’s posting is a disappointing escalation of partisan rhetoric. Although tensions between the new House and scientific leaders are likely to increase, this expectation does not imply that Republicans are anti-science. Instead, it reflects the presence of conflict concerning fundamental values and national priorities, in which science leaders have become aligned rather far to the left-of-center.

    This misalignment of values and priorities is evident in Dr. Lubell’s discussion of the relationship between science and defense. In this view, science is purely civilian, and it competes with defense for funding. Many Americans, more aware of our nation’s history, view science and defense as closely linked. They recognize the critical contribution of science to military victory and national preservation, and the role of the military in fostering science. Dr. Lubell effectively communicates a currently prevalent view among science leaders, many of whom repudiate this history and regard the military with disdain.

    Dr. Lubell’s expectation of conflict over energy policy, climate change, foreign spending, and the overall size of the Federal budget likewise reflects basic disagreement over the extent to which our nation should retain or abandon the primacy of national identity and founding principles, such as limited constitutional government, decentralization of power and authority, and a preference for private initiative over collective action. In our nation’s history, science continued to progress by remaining largely neutral as the two sides in this disagreement alternated in dominance.

    In recent decades, scientific leaders chose to align with one side and oppose the other. Now they find that science is in the midst of a fight, but they have forgotten why and instead imagine that the forces of tradition in America are anti-science. This forgetfulness and the ongoing politicization of science are seriously harmful and should be ended.

    • mslubell
      Posted November 29, 2010 at 4:10 PM | Permalink | Reply

      In my posting I did not suggest that the anti-science campaign in the recent election supports an argument that there is a normal partisan divide on research and education. After all, Newt Gingrich worked hard during the 1990’s to insulate science from attempts to strip funding from basic research. And George W. Bush promoted doubling the budgets of DOE Science, NIST and NSF in his American Competitiveness Initiative.

      But let us be clear: the new Congress will reflect a strong tilt toward libertarianism and away from anything that smacks of elitism. And it is into such a vise that science will fall. As someone who spent years working in the Republican Party in New York State, I can attest to two fundamental principles — the American electorate is fickle, and political parties change.

      I believe most of the new GOP arrivals do not share many of the traditional pro-science tenets of the Republican Party. (In fact, the Republican Pledge to America — on which the new members based their campaigns — proposes returning federal spending to 2008 levels in the next year, which could mean a cut of as much as 25 percent for science funding.) They reject in part or in whole the proposition that the federal government has a role and a responsibility as a financial backer of research and education.

      It’s a pity, because the future of the U.S. economy and national security depends on it.

    • Green
      Posted July 9, 2011 at 3:46 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Scientists, and for that matter physicists, have isolated themselves in the formulation of national policies.
      This stems from the following observations:
      1. You are only regarded a scientist if you have a PhD. This has decreased the large number of scientists who have had master’s degrees but branched out to other areas. Large numbers are effective.
      2. My fellow physicists who have made significant contributions to science are too arrogant to come down to the level of ordinary people.
      3. There is no liaison between pure science and applied science. This has stifled the advancement of applied research.
      4. Most areas of physics right now is so advanced and to the ordinary person useless. Let’s not forget: It is the ordinary people who vote lawmakers into power.
      5. We do not encourage scientific journalism, a course of study that could be introduced to educate our naive journalists. Ordinary Americans cannot distinguish between physics and engineering.

      It is time to get out of the cocoon stage and into a full-fledged colorful fly to engage more in public policies.

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