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See Inside February 2007

Truth Time in Washington

WILL SCIENCE



CORBIS
For years, scientists worried that Republican politicians ignored science and were even downright antagonistic to it. Now that the Democrats have regained some power, we will see if they do any better. The first tests may not come on the most prominent issues, such as climate change and embryonic stem cells, but on other highly important yet less glamorous matters.

Energy. The last attempt at a comprehensive energy policy was the notorious "No Lobbyist Left Behind" act, an expensive wish list of sub?sidies and pork projects rather than a focused effort to clean up and secure the nation's energy supply. One obvious improvement would be to raise car mileage standards. Apart from a recent, tiny nudge, the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards have been stuck since 1986. The U.S. now has the weakest automobile efficiency regulations in the industrial world; even China does better. Both the planet and U.S. technological competitiveness suffer.

Public health. Several medi?cal policy questions remain unresolved to the detriment of public health. The Vioxx debacle has heightened calls for better tracking of newly approved drugs for side effects. The Grassley-Dodd bill would establish a new Food and Drug Administration division that could order safety studies and take corrective actions after a drug is approved. Biodefense funding also needs reform. The Bioshield program, which is supposed to provide incentives for inno?vative drug development, is badly flawed, and passage of the Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine and Drug Development Act would help to fix it. The act must, however, be amended to incorporate a viable solution to vaccine liability concerns. Fear of lawsuits is holding up the development of new vaccines, yet blanket immunity for manufacturers would fail to protect the public and would leave taxpayers liable when a vaccine caused unintended harm. The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which combines liability limits with a compensation fund, offers a middle road and should be extended to all vaccines.

Paying the bills. The outgoing Congress left some financial loose ends dangling that could hurt science in the coming year. It passed only two appropriations bills for fiscal year 2007, neither of which covered science agencies, such as the National Science Foundation. Consequently, many important research and development programs remain in limbo, including those for the International Polar Year that begins next month. In the longer term, science agencies sorely need more stable funding so that they can plan effectively.

Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). To serve the country well, Congress needs not just to address specific problems but to improve how it deals with scientific and technological issues in general. From 1972 until it was canceled in late 1995, the OTA carried out high-quality analyses without getting sucked into partisan politics. Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, a former research physicist, has repeatedly introduced legislation to restore the agency and has gained support from both sides of the aisle. Now is the time to pass that bill, instead of letting it die in committee once again.

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