New House Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker (R-PA) is off to
a quick start with his new committee. In only the first few days
of the 104th Congress, he held an organizational meeting and then
adeptly chaired a hearing the next day. Walker has announced plans
to mark up draft legislation on a hydrogen energy research bill,
and risk assessment legislation, later this month.
On January 6, the administration's top science officials testified
at a three hour hearing on what Walker said was a "focus on the
long term." First to testify was OSTP Director John Gibbons who
said in his written testimony, "a government role is...vital in
promoting technologies that are critical to economic growth, the
creation of good jobs, and meeting the common needs of the nation,
but cannot attract adequate private investment." He continued,
"many economic studies have shown that federal money invested in
science and technology brings, on average, a 50 percent rate of
return to U.S. society." Gibbons lauded investments in fundamental
research, and cited the link between science and technology. He
highlighted the importance of basic physics research in magnetic
resonance imaging, transistors, and materials.
In discussing the administration's support of basic science and
applied research, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown testified, "we
should recognize at the outset that the Contract with America would
jeopardize that technology policy." Brown cited the proposed
elimination of the Advanced Technology Program and a NOAA budget
NSF Director Neal Lane's written testimony discussed an area of
considerable debate, saying, "NSF support of research focuses
almost exclusively on answers to fundamental questions that defy
our ability to predict the outcomes. Still, it is important to
recognize that taxpayer-funded fundamental research can and should
have a conscious relationship to the nation's priorities and
societal needs. This does not mean a narrowly directed agenda of
targeted research, but rather, a program of fundamental science and
engineering that clearly is in and for the national interest, in
its most comprehensive interpretation."
Responding to public and congressional sentiment for the downsizing
of the federal government, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin
testified, "We've started a revolution at NASA.... We're
downsizing. We cut our five-year budget projection by 30%. We're
replacing big, expensive projects with smaller, more efficient
ones. We're in the midst of a zero base review that puts
everything on the table. No program is sacred. We're looking at
everything NASA does."
DOE Secretary Hazel O'Leary was unable to testify. Her Statement
for the Record said, "As one of the nation's major supporters of
federal research and development, the Department of Energy has a
wide range of extremely exciting R&D programs under way that hold
the potential to contribute in important ways to a better future."
Citing the department's statutory missions, she referred to DOE's
involvement in "fundamental science in areas that underlie these
missions areas, including high-energy and nuclear physics."
Questions from committee Members covered many topics. Rep. George
Brown (D-CA) criticized the administration for using overly
optimistic, unrealistic funding scenarios. Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN)
had concerns about the NASA budget, saying, "I don't know how we do
it, Mr. Goldin." In response to a question, NSF Director Lane
admitted that the agency was facing the prospect of lower future
budgets. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) asked about undergraduate
science education programs being shortchanged.
A new committee Member, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) asked Director
Gibbons about the ability of the federal government to manage large
programs, citing the SSC. Gibbons responded by saying that efforts
to internationalize the collider were "too little, too late."
Gibbons said high energy physics research continues, noting the
Fermilab upgrade, B Factory, and that "we are attempting to become
a part of the large international consortium" on the Large Hadron
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), a physicist, criticized U.S. science
policy for "focusing on the immediate term." He said the nation's
commitment to basic research was "faltering," saying "I am
particularly disturbed at what has happened in the past few years.
I don't engage in Senate bashing, but I will use an example of the
Senate Appropriations Committee, with their strong emphasis on
strategic research.... I think there's a real danger of cutting
into important funding for basic research." He called for a
"coherent congressional science policy."
In responding to Ehlers, Gibbons cited the strong case made for
basic research in the OSTP report, "Science in the National
Interest." Gibbons stated that the administration has strongly
supported basic research during this constrained budget climate,
and "it has held a priority, even to the point of taking money away
from other activity." Lane discussed NSF support of fundamental
research, such as the LIGO and Gemini telescope projects.
In his concluding remarks, Chairman Walker offered insight into a
philosophy that is likely to reverberate throughout the science
committee during his chairmanship. He stated, "It seems to me that
what we have to do if we're going to begin to restructure
government in ways that make sense for twenty years out, we have to
get past the idea of thinking of all these things as government
programs. We have to begin to think about a society restructured
where science is integral part of addressing that whole panoply of
economic interests, but also it goes to the very nature of our
culture as well...."