House Science Committee Chairman Walker Optimistic on Science Spending

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Publication date: 
13 January 1995
Number: 
6

Although a constant refrain on Capitol Hill is the need to reduce
federal spending, remarks by new House Science Committee Chairman
Robert Walker (R-PA) on a public radio station show (88.5 FM -
WAMU, Washington) on Wednesday provide cautiously optimistic signs
for future science spending.  Walker's remarks are particularly
significant since he is also the Vice Chairman of the House Budget
Committee, which will have great influence in setting the direction
of congressional spending this year.

Walker was joined by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Ranking
Minority Member on the Senate VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies
Appropriations Subcommittee, and Anne Petersen, Deputy Director of
the National Science Foundation.

Excerpts from this 45-minute discussion follow:

WALKER ON THE OUTLOOK FOR SCIENCE SPENDING:

"I think that it is going to be largely driven by what the
administration decides to do in their budget.  I am hopeful that we
will at least maintain an even level for science, and maybe even
increase it somewhat.  Because it is an area where we are investing
in the future.  It seems to me that when you fund basic research
you're financing the underpinnings, the foundation if you will, for
the economy of the future.  And that we make a very, very unwise
decision if we cut back on our ability to know what the future can
produce by cutting back on science at the present time."

He later added, "If the administration holds the line pretty well
on research, my guess is that Congress is going to follow that.  I
hear no great mood on Capitol Hill to slash into the science
budget.  There's no doubt that we are going to be doing a lot of
cutting, and a lot of those are going to be in discretionary
programs, but I think there is an understanding amongst Republicans
and Democrats on Capitol Hill that when using our discretion about
discretionary programs, the last thing we want to do is take away
from those efforts that will help define our ability to compete
economically and globally in the future."

WALKER ON STRATEGIC AND APPLIED RESEARCH FUNDING:

"There's a totality of scientific research that has to be looked
at, as a part of the whole economy, not just the federal
government.  I think the federal government role should be limited
to research that is largely basic so that we are assured that that
research gets done.  Applied research is the kind of thing where
you see a product at the end, and where business and industry are
willing to invest in a lot of that kind of research....  You want
the federal government funding basic research and you want the
other research to be done by those people who will ultimately
profit from it."

Walker later continued, "There may be research that should be done
that has no constituency," citing research on bread mold that
ultimately produced penicillin.  "No one knew that at the time that
the research began.  I think we ought to keep the door very much
open to allow research to be driven by ideas, and not by
constituencies."

PETERSEN ON NSF'S FUNDING APPROACH:

"We do not see a conflict here....  Fundamental research can and
should have a conscious relationship to the nation's priorities and
societal needs." 

WALKER ON THE POLITICAL PROCESS SETTING OF SCIENTIFIC GOALS:

"In my view, the way you should select projects is by peer review,
where the scientific community decides the research is valuable to
be done.  Whether or not it fits with a political goal, it should
be done simply because it is good science."

MIKULSKI ON SCIENCE FUNDING CUTS:

"Let me tell you, there is a convergence between the budget hawks
and the budget doves to go after science.  They defeated the super
collider, which was the purest...physics driven research.  They are
now cruising for cuts in the space program, whether it is the space
station, and I understand a very strong segment, growing segment,
in [the GOP] wants to eliminate the Mission to Plant Earth in the
space program.  So politics is going to drive science, and it's
going to drive it through the cutting process, unless science can
articulate a clear vision about what it wants to accomplish.  And
while Congress was kicking the dickens out of the super collider,
they were enthusiastically endorsing the human genome project....
Why did they back the human genome project -- because they see it
leading to something."

PETERSEN ON SCIENTISTS COMMUNICATING WITH THE PUBLIC:

"I very much agree with the perspective that we as scientists need
to do a better job of communicating what we're doing, and why it is
important to the lives of our citizens and the nation overall.  I
think we haven't done as good a job of that as we need to.  I think
if we are able to accomplish that, there will be broader
understanding of the results of fundamental research and how it can
have practical impact."