Required Reading: Science Committee Chairman Boehlert on Science Funding

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Publication date: 
15 March 2004

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) was the keynote speaker today at a workshop for the future National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Boehlert's remarks at this workshop, as they are at hearings, were to the point, and concerned a constant problem in Washington: money. This year that problem is greater than it has been in a long time, so Boehlert's words are particularly important. Selections follow:

"But one doesn't need a degree in physics to understand the value of a scientific tool that furthers human understanding of matter while answering practical questions in materials science and biology; a tool that is of use to both academic and industrial researchers; a tool that attracts the best researchers from throughout the world. The U.S. simply must invest to upgrade its capabilities in this area, building on the expertise that Brookhaven and the researchers who use its facilities have developed over the last few decades.

"What I've just said is a simple, straightforward, totally defensible statement of need, but it won't bring a new light source into being. For that, you need money.

"And money is what I want to focus on in my remaining time with you today. You can tell me about the fundamental aspects of matter, but money is the fundamental building block of the tools you need to study matter.

"Just to bring that point home with a little more specificity, let me say a word about the Department of Energy's (DOE) 20-year facilities plan. As you know, that plan lists a new synchrotron light source as one of the Department's highest priorities in the period that begins about 15 years from now. I know that you would like to move that timing up.

"Let me say first that Ray Orbach, the head of DOE's Office of Science, deserves tremendous credit for undertaking the planning exercise that led to the facilities plan and for bringing it to fruition.

"This is exactly the sort of deliberative, long-term planning that we need more of. In fact, we're encouraging the National Science Foundation (NSF) to put together a similar kind of process for its large facilities account. I should add that NSF's task will be even tougher than Ray's was because NSF funds an even wider array of fields.

"But here's something you might not realize about the 20-year facilities plan - because the plan never makes it explicit.

"The DOE plan, like any plan, had to be built on budget assumptions that set the parameters of the possible. And what were the tacit budget assumptions behind the DOE facilities plan? They were the numbers in the comprehensive Energy Bill, H.R. 6, which the House passed last year. That bill is now stalled in the Senate, perhaps forever. Those numbers, which were developed by the Science Committee, call for the budget of the Office of Science to almost double over the next five years.

"Now even if the Energy Bill managed to get out of the Senate and were signed into law, that would hardly guarantee such increases for the Office of Science. As I'm sure most of you know, authorization bills, like the Energy Bill, just provide guidance and policy direction; annual appropriations determine actual spending.

"And what's the actual spending look like? Well, for fiscal 2005, which will begin in October, the authorized level in the Energy Bill for the Office of Science is $4.2 billion; the Administration's request for fiscal 2005 is significantly less, $3.4 billion.

"It's far too early in the Congressional budget season to guess what final funding for the Office of Science will be, but it's safe to say that it's not going to reach $4.2 billion - not in a year when the President has proposed increasing all non-security discretionary spending by just half a percent, and Congress is moving to cut that number down to zero.

"So the message I want to leave you with today is that all of us - all of us - need to do a lot of missionary work if anything in the DOE planning document is to become a reality. I don't think I'm exaggerating by saying that. The Office of Science has said, quite properly, that if funding is less than expected, its first priority will be to keep its current equipment running as many weeks of the year as possible.

"Now let me give you some hints on how to go about doing the missionary work that is required. First, don't start by assuming that folks in Washington are out to get scientists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, in the proposed fiscal 2005 budget, science agencies are slated to receive some of the largest increases - less than I'd prefer, but more than other agencies.

"Just about everyone on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would like to do as much as possible for science - especially for the physical sciences, which have been going through a period of relative neglect as funding for biomedical research has skyrocketed in recent years. So don't start by assuming that Washington's goal is to harm or ignore science.

"Here's another approach not to take. Don't tell Members of Congress that you're different because you're not looking to help yourselves in the short-run; you're looking for money that is a long-term investment for the entire nation.

"Sure, science funding is just that sort of investment. But so are education and road building and defense spending and human space flight; the list of possible investments goes on and on.

"And guess what? Congress is not besieged by groups asking for money that they describe as necessary to help their own narrow interests in the short run. The argument that science funding is a long-term national investment does nothing to set scientists apart. All that sets you apart is that scientists are the only group that thinks they're making a unique argument.

"So you need to argue on the facts. I feel safe in saying, without insulting any of my colleagues, that most of them know even less about synchrotron light sources than I do. They need to hear from you - and especially from those of you in industry and your CEOs - why a light source, or any other piece of equipment or area of research, is important. They - we - need to learn from you what the nation will actually be giving up if you aren't able to succeed.

"That won't be the end of the story. We in the Congress will still have our duty to choose among competing priorities. The budget is always a constraint, and it's more constraining now that it has been in a long time.

"Right now, for example, as Science chairman, I especially have to wrestle with the President's proposed space exploration initiative. It's a thoughtful proposal, and no doubt would be worthy of immediate funding in a universe in which money was no object. But we don't live in that universe, and we're not likely to find one like it in the future.

"So I have to weigh that proposal against other priorities, and get more information about its costs and its benefits and its timing before I can make a decision on how I think we should proceed.

"As part of my decision-making, one matter I have to weigh is the relative merit of additional funding for NASA versus additional funding for other federal science agencies, particularly NSF, which competes head-to-head for funding with NASA because they're in the same appropriations bill. Believe me, this isn't an easy task.

"But I couldn't even begin to undertake that kind of analysis if I didn't know what the expenditures of the various agencies might mean to our country. I'm lucky; I've got dozens of staff on the Science Committee who give me that information and help me sort through these questions.

"But science isn't - and can't be - that kind of focus for every Member; they have to focus primarily on their own Committee assignments and district interests. They won't know anything about any of this unless they hear from people like you - and hear from you regularly, back home, and in a thoughtful manner.

"Now this may not be the kind of speech - or should I say, 'lecture'? - that you most wanted to hear today. And I'm sure the rest of this conference will focus, as it should, on the many exciting technical questions that designing a new synchrotron poses and on the mind-boggling opportunities that having such a machine would present.

"But please remember as you have those discussions that a new synchrotron will remain an example of very theoretical physics unless work is done to make funding for it a political reality. I will do everything I possibly can to help you, but I can't do it alone.

"The future of science funding will depend on many things beyond your control - the macroeconomic situation, the nature of competing needs, etc. But it will also depend on how actively you can make people like me understand why what you're about is important to our nation. I look forward to working with you as you do that."