Policy Insiders on Political Involvement in 2004

Share This

Publication date: 
20 December 2004

As explained in FYI #160, the American Association for the Advancement of Science sponsored a morning seminar earlier this month on the impacts of last month's election (http://www.aaas.org/news/press_room/election/12012004.shtml.) Three speakers discussed the involvement of scientists in the political process, providing their thoughts on topics ranging from negative reactions to this involvement to strategies for the coming year. This FYI is a transcript of selections from these thought-provoking presentations.

Excerpts from two of these speakers follow. As noted in FYI #160, these speakers were:

Former Rep. John Porter (R-IL): Porter chaired the House appropriations subcommittee that provided NIH with significantly higher budgets. He is now a partner in a Washington law firm and the chair-elect of Research!America, which advocates for higher budgets for medical research.

Bob Palmer: Palmer is minority staff director for the House Science Committee. Palmer's tenure on Capitol Hill began in the late 1970s when he was an AAAS Fellow. He will be leaving his post at the end of this month.


"We have to ask the question that I raised earlier: is there some sort of revenge factor here on the science community for its active involvement in the campaign? I had a boss for a number of years who always used to say he believed in being fair to his enemies but partial to his friends. I don't think one has to conjure up the conspiracy that there were people in the [omnibus appropriations] conference or the White House out to get science. But when you are in a tight bill, particularly NSF in the VA/HUD bill, people may not be looking to hurt you actively but they're also probably not looking to help you. And I think there was an impact. My answer to that question is essentially yes. I think there is an impact. If you look at the programs in that bill and how they fared, pretty much across the board the programs that had more of a Democratic constituency, I would say, [such as] EPA; housing programs; NSF, which tends to get money into urban areas in large universities that are liberal; all did horribly. The programs that are more broadly distributive that are more politically important - the veterans programs and NASA - did pretty well. Maybe that is all coincidence; I don't think it is. It's something that the community needs to think about. I worked for George Brown for years, and George was constantly haranguing you guys, the community, fellow members...about the scientific community getting more involved in the political system. Trying to understand it, work with it. Maybe that is the revenge of that: the community got involved, and, I think, to a certain extent, they are paying the price. But I think that is a civic judgement that every individual needs to make. It's not a scientific judgement as to how involved one wants to be. . . .I think if one feels that one candidate or another, presidential or any other race, is closer to one's views. . . then one should support that candidate. But there are risks. As Bob Walker said in this very room a few months ago [see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/135.html], there is a risk of push back. And I think that we all knew what Mr. Walker meant."

"In sciences, let's be honest, it's always been sort of a medium-level priority, I would say, on the Hill. When you go back, you look ten, fifteen, twenty years, it's done better than energy, than environment, it's never done as well as transportation, it's never done as well as justice issues - federal prisons, and a variety of other things - it's a nice, quiet, medium-level priority. And unless there's a real political shift of some sort that raises the visibility of science, I don't really expect that is going to change. . . . One of the things that has occurred to me, as I was thinking about this, is that unfortunately, and I hate to make this overly grim, some of the enthusiasm just doesn't seem to be there for science in the political arena right now."

"I think it is a dangerous time. My Republican counterpart, [Science Committee Chief of Staff] Dave Goldston, is very fond of saying that he finds it miraculous that science gets the funding it does, because it is politically inactive, it doesn't register on most people's consciousness, it doesn't reward candidates or punish candidates. And it does well because at some level, Members and people in the Administration understand the importance of science for the economy and other important aspects of our lives. ... Hopefully, there is still the strong bipartisan support. . . and it's always been there and it will stay there, but boy, I think it's under strain right now, and I think it is very, very dependent on senior Members and those individual champions to continue to make those arguments [in support of science]."


"It is a message, that if you look at this White House and you look at this Congress, and you want to reach people, yes, you can talk, certainly should, about the human impact [of scientific advancement], but if you want to talk about bottom line, talk about the economy, talk about the contribution that science and technology makes to the country and its economic growth, that is an argument that they will listen to. And it seems to me that all of the science groups ought to get on the same page, work off the same data, and have the same message and it ought to be in the forefront of reaching out to Congress with a message of the value of science to the American people and to this economy, to our future. I think it's a message that resonates, it's true, it's backed up by evidence, it's strong and we need to make it as our lead argument with this Congress and this Administration, because I think that's when we're going to get them to listen."

"On the physical sciences side, there is really no national constituency except the scientists themselves. And that has always been a problem. It's self-serving, because you want more funding for your research. On the life sciences side on the other hand, there is a tremendous patient advocacy or voluntary health organization constituency that has gotten stronger, more sophisticated, better funded, more impactful of the process...[that under Research!America] has also been carrying the message of the physical sciences. That you need to not only fund the life sciences, you need to fund the physical sciences as well, because science today is coming closer and closer together and the silos in which science has always existed in our society, are breaking down, as we do research in a different way. I think that what we have to do is to use that constituency to be advocates for all of science and to bring home to policy makers the importance of science to America and its future."

"You can change the image of things to come. But you can't do it wringing your hands, and you can't do it sitting on your fingers, you've got to get out and get involved and defend science as you have never defended science before. Science can, in my judgement, be sold to this Administration and to this Congress. I suggest that the best way to do that is to recount to them over and over again, what I have been talking about for years, that the economic destiny of America lies in science and technology, in science and research. And if we don't invest in research, and we don't inspire our children, and if we don't educate them in Congress, the competition out there, and China is a good example, but Europe also, will begin to eat our scientific lunch."

"Will the Administration reach out to science? We certainly hope so. . . . Science and technology should not wait on the Administration to come to us. This Administration is going to be in office for the next four years. There is a great deal on the table, including research funding, and many of the important issues that I have recounted. Science needs to reach out to the Administration, to Congress, and try to build some bridges, and bring the relationship where it should be. We can sit there and fight for the things we believe in. We absolutely must do that. But we can also do it on the basis of attempting to establish with the Administration and with the Congress a better relationship than seems to exist at this time. What Americans do after an election is to come together and work in the best interest of the country. We've had the election. Now is the time for Americans to come together and work in the best interests of the country. Science needs to put out its collective hand, and simply say, that they're prepared to work in the best interests of the country, and build the bridges that we possibly can."