Department of Science: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

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Publication date: 
7 July 1995
Number: 
94

Bringing together the federal government's science programs into a
single Department of Science is not a new idea.  With the current
climate for change, and the nation poised on the threshold of the
twenty-first century, is it an idea whose time has come?  House
Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker (R-PA) thinks so.

On June 28, Walker held the first in a series of hearings on
restructuring the federal science enterprise.  He claimed that the
current system is obsolete, fragmented, duplicative, and full of
entrenched interest groups.  A single entity overseeing the
majority of the federal research effort, Walker said, would allow
for better long-range planning and prioritization, increased
cooperation, and greater efficiency.  Walker's proposal would
incorporate NSF, NASA, NIST's core programs, NOAA, EPA's science
programs, USGS and the Patent and Trademark Office, as well as the
research functions of the energy and commerce departments.  Health
and defense research programs would be excluded, for fear of their
"eating alive all other research areas."

In the 103rd Congress, Walker cosponsored a bill to create a
science department with George Brown (D-CA), currently the
committee's ranking minority member.  But Brown expressed some
reservations, and cautioned that a new department should not be "an
orphanage for [programs] cast adrift as their parent agencies are
dismembered."

George Keyworth, former science advisor to President Reagan,
testified to a growing erosion of trust between the American public
and the science community.  He attributed this gap to scientists'
sense of entitlement, attempts to preserve the status quo in the
face of changing circumstances, and a recent shift in emphasis from
basic research to technology.  He felt that a science department
might win back the nation's trust, by enabling priority-setting
across science disciplines and requiring greater accountability.
Asked by Tim Roemer (D-IN) why a number of other former science
advisors, as well as the current one, did not concur on the notion
of a science department, Keyworth replied that their views, like
his, probably oscillated from time to time.

Former Rep. Don Ritter agreed that a Department of Science would
provide a national focus and vision for science funding, and make
"more coherent use of what we have."  While admitting that
establishing a new department would result in some loss of
diversity of funding sources, he argued that diversity could be
maintained through other, non-federal sources.  Henson Moore
related his efforts, as Deputy Energy Secretary during the Bush
Administration, to improve the coordination and vision of DOE
research, to consolidate the DOE labs, and to expand DOE to a new
Department of Energy, Science and Technology.  He warned of the
political pitfalls of such attempts.

Keyworth thought that the new department's focus should be on basic
research and education of new talent, and criticized
government-industry partnerships for enhancing competitiveness.
Brown responded that there is an ideological dispute within
Congress over federal involvement in applied research and
technology development.  Joseph Spigai, Director of the University
of Maryland Engineering Management Program, argued that it is
difficult to separate basic research from applied, and believed
that including both in a single department would help smooth the
transition from one to the other.  Moore agreed that there was a
valid federal role in applied research of national benefit that, if
left to the private sector, would never get done.  Walker
questioned whether "one-stop shopping" for research funding would
result in a loss of good ideas.  Moore stated that a well-run
research plan funds competing ideas at an early stage, which would
be easier to organize if all research was funded under a single
organization.

Most of those present agreed that if there ever was a propitious
time for such a reorganization, it is now.  The chairman of the
Basic Research Subcommittee, Steven Schiff (R-NM), said he was
"becoming convinced " that a single science department was a good
idea.  He also advocated having science funding consolidated under
the jurisdiction of only one congressional appropriations
subcommittee in each chamber.  Walker plans to continue the
discussion in future hearings, but none have yet been scheduled.

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