Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist: A Friend of Science

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Publication date: 
9 January 2003
Number: 
4

Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) assumed a new position this week when he became the Senate's new Majority Leader. First elected in November 1994, Frist is now in the second half of what he said would be his only two terms in the Senate.

Type "Frist" into FYI's archival search engine and it will locate more than 30 issues dating back to July 1997. Senator Frist has long been involved in science budget and policy issues, and is well-known as a friend of science.

The senator graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, specializing in health care policy. In 1978, Frist graduated from Harvard Medical School. Before coming to Washington, he was known internationally for his practice at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, specializing in heart and lung transplants.

Frist has long served on Senate committees with oversight on science and technology issues. He was also one of the founders of the Senate Science and Technology Caucus. Senator Frist has been active politically, serving as the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee which works to elect and reelect Republicans to the Senate. He has a strong relationship with President Bush.

FYI first cited the senator in 1997 with coverage of two hearings he chaired on an all-too-familiar topic: the problems and progress of the international space station. In 1998, he became active in the movement to double federal funding for research and development. Frist and Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced legislation that modified a bill earlier authored by Senators Phil Gramm (R-TX) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). Under this bill, federal civilian R&D funding would have effectively doubled in 12 years. The bill contained provisions calling for prioritization and evaluation of federal research programs. While the Senate passed the bill, the House took no action. Late that year, Frist was one of 24 senators who signed a letter to President Clinton recommending a 6 - 7% increase in R&D funding in the forthcoming budget.

In January 1999, Frist reintroduced his doubling bill in the new Congress. On the floor, he stated, "if we are to dedicate ourselves to advancement of biotechnology and all the benefits that it will afford, we must support it with solid funding for the basic sciences. One truly depends upon the other." In another few weeks, following the release of President Clinton's budget request, Frist outlined his support for the civilian R&D numbers, but criticized the defense numbers as too low. He also expressed concern about how defense testing and similar programs were now being included in long-term R&D budget projections. In late July, the Senate approved the doubling bill.

In the spring of 2000, FYI reported on a Senate subcommittee hearing chaired by Frist on NASA. While he described his support of NASA and the challenges it faces, he also told the NASA administrator that "for $14 billion a year, the American taxpayers deserve better." Frist also spoke of the difficulties in getting good cost projections from the agency. In May, he was one of 12 senators to sign a letter to Senate appropriators stating, "Shortchanging science in this year's appropriations process would be worrisome since much of our current economic success results from past federal investment in basic research." The letter also spoke of the need for a balanced research portfolio. That fall, he was one of 38 senators to sign a letter to the Senate's leadership advocating a five year doubling of the NSF budget. He was also one of 36 senators who sent a letter to the Senate leadership in support of a substantial increase in funding for the Department of Energy's Office of Science. A similar letter was sent to the President that autumn stressing the importance of DOE's Office of Science's research in the physical sciences. Finally, that fall there was a somewhat unusual publicized exchange of rather sharp letters between Frist and House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) regarding Sensenbrenner's refusal to move the doubling bill through the House.

In 2001, Frist was one of seven cosponsors of an amendment, during the Senate's consideration of the budget resolution, that would increase the overall amount of money available for science funding. Last year, the senator was one of five original cosponsors of legislation to award competitive grants to academic institutions with programs to increase the number of students in S&T fields. Late last year, with the strong leadership of the new chairman of the House Science Committee, Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), and his colleagues, a bill was passed that realized, in part, the goal first set forth in 1997 with the introduction of the first doubling bill. This legislation, now signed into law by President Bush, authorizes a doubling of the budget for the National Science Foundation.

With his ascendance to the Majority Leader's position, Frist is very likely to find that his strategies and objectives will necessarily align closely with those of the Bush Administration. The outlook for funding for the current fiscal year, which still remains unsettled, and for the year beginning next October 1 is - not surprisingly - tight. Senate Majority Leader Frist will have far more demands placed on him, with pressures from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Frist has demonstrated that he values research, supports it, and has worked for it - and that should be very helpful.