This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science

Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?

Scientific American asks leaders of a dozen House and Senate committees for written answers to eight policy questions related to science and technology

Research and the Future.  Federally funded research has helped to produce America's major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research.  Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?

Representative Timothy Bishop, New York State–1 (D) and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, writes:

As I mentioned previously, federal investment in basic and advanced research is vital to our ability to drive our economy forward through innovation.  In order to remain globally competitive in the 21st Century, we must continue our broad support for federal initiatives that have helped foster thousands of innovations like the microchip, GPS, the Internet, and the bar code, just to name a few.   

In my district alone, Brookhaven National Lab has made monumental scientific discoveries and has been the breeding ground for hundreds of innovations that have led to economic gains for business and entrepreneurs, and which have improved the quality of life for millions of Americans.  Similarly, investments in research through the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, to name a few, have resulted in billions of dollars in economic activity, created thousands of jobs, and help position the U.S. to maintain its global leadership in innovation. 

As we continue to grow our economy out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, we must be careful not to endanger the very programs and investments that have been critical to helping businesses create jobs.  I strongly oppose efforts by some to reduce federal investment in research and education and I've consistently voted to maintain and increase funding for key federal agencies responsible for enhancing U.S. research efforts, as well as tax policies to encourage innovation and foster economic growth. 

Representative John Boehner, Ohio–8 (R) and speaker of the House, declined to respond to the eight science questions we asked. Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that collects information on candidates for public office, lists Representative Boehner's voting record on measures related to science and medical research here.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, California (D) and chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, writes:

I believe federal funding must play a critical role in ensuring the United States remains at the forefront of scientific innovation. While I recognize we are operating under severe budgetary constraints, I will continue to promote efforts to fund critical science programs through my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. One example of this is my strong support for ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), an Energy Department agency that promotes and funds advanced energy technology R&D.  Since 2009 the agency has received $800 million to fund more than 200 innovative energy technology projects. This agency is on the cutting edge of energy research, not only in the United States but globally.

Representative Ralph Hall, Texas–4 (R) and chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, writes:

Despite the constrained budget environment, Federal investments in research continue to be a top priority, particularly basic research, which holds the key to our future.  Our mission agencies also have critical applied research needs to fulfill their missions; therefore, it is imperative for Congress to robustly support basic research in a fiscally responsible way, while at the same time adequately fund critical mission needs.  For those applied research areas outside of the immediate scope of mission agency needs, however, it is not the role of the federal government to make those investments, as those are best left to industry and market-driven forces.  Growth in foreign research funding simply confirms the importance of continuing the U.S. commitment for basic research.

Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa (D) and chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, writes:

As the chairman of the Senate appropriations panel that oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I have long championed federal funding for research. Between 1998 and 2003, Sen. Arlen Specter and I led a bipartisan effort to double the NIH budget over five years. Increases of that size are of course no longer possible today, but biomedical research should remain a high priority, not only because of its benefits to human health but also because of its impact on the U.S. economy. A recent study found that NIH research generated $62 billion in economic activity last year.  Meanwhile, other countries such as China and Singapore have taken notice and are dramatically boosting their investments in biomedical research. These countries understand that the research of today will lead to the innovations of tomorrow. Although the United States remains the leader in this area, the gap between us and the rest of the world is closing. For the sake of the nation's health as well our economic future, we simply cannot afford to lose our emphasis on research.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky (R) and Senate minority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. Following President Obama's State of the Union Address on January 25, 2011, Senator McConnell commented on the Obama Administration's policies, including government spending. An excerpt from his prepared remarks follows. The remarks were accessed via the Congressional Record Online from the Government Printing Office:

The President has talked about the need to cut spending and reduce the debt. Yet over the past two years, his policies have added more than $3 trillion to the national debt, much of it through a Stimulus that promised to keep unemployment, now hovering just below double digits, from rising above 8 percent. And now we hear that he plans to stick with the same failed approach of economic growth through even more government spending with a call for 'investments' in education, infrastructure, research, and renewable energy. We've seen before what Democrats in Washington mean by investments. In promoting the failed Stimulus, the President referred to that too as an investment in our nation's future. Fourteen times alone during his signing statement, he referred to the Stimulus bill's investments. We all know how that turned out.

The first Stimulus, we were told, would also include critical so- called investments in education, infrastructure, scientific research, and renewable energy - the same areas we're told he'll focus on tonight. Only later did we learn that some of those critical investments included things like repairs on tennis courts, a study on the mating decisions of cactus bugs, hundreds of thousands of dollars for a plant database, and a $535 million loan to a California solar panel maker which, instead of hiring 1,000 new workers, as planned, just laid off 175 instead.

Senator McConnell has worked to secure funding for research based at universities in Kentucky according to a press release on his Web site. In the release, Senator McConnell is quoted:

Whether it’s for education, defense or agriculture, I will continue to use my seniority in the United States Senate to help bring home funding on behalf of the hard working people of Kentucky.

Representative John Mica, Florida–7 (R) and chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, writes:

To better prepare our children for the global economy, we should discourage policies that dumb down education curricula and redirect financial aid to those whose careers are directed toward science and technology fields. We must also do a better job of recruiting, educating and retaining qualified teachers. Too many students have a weak foundation in science and technology and are unable to develop their knowledge in those fields.

From a Federal perspective, education decisions are best handled at the local level as communities have different needs and resources. Federal policy should encourage school choice, require baseline achievement standards to receive Federal money and promote academic innovation by the states.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, California–8 (D) and House minority leader, writes:

Americans have two choices for the direction our country should move forward in the future.  Democrats set out our preferred path in the America COMPETES Act, which grows scientific investments commensurate with their importance to our nation's future.  Sadly, Republicans in the House passed the Ryan budget, which will slash about $800 billion in investment in education and skills training, science and technology research and development, and transportation infrastructure between 2013 and 2022.

Senator Harry Reid, Nevada (D) and Senate majority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. The senator was a lead sponsor for the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010. On his Web site, he writes:

I am also a longtime supporter of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, which represent the federal government's largest small business research and development programs.  Small businesses play a key role in spurring innovation and the SBIR and STTR programs provide these businesses with the capital they need to develop the next great technological advancement, and to create jobs to put more Nevadans back to work.  Recently, after several months of obstruction, I was pleased to pass a long-term reauthorization of these valuable initiatives. I will continue to support programs and policies that help Nevada's high-tech businesses out-innovate our global competitors and stay on the cutting edge of technology.

Senator Reid's Web site contains a section devoted to his stance on medical research, in which he highlights several legislative initiatives he has led. The senator states:

Throughout my career in the Senate, I have supported increased funding for life-saving medical research. While I am proud that we have doubled our national medical research budget at the National Institutes of Health over the five year period of 1998 to 2003, I am particularly disappointed about spending proposals in recent years that would reverse this trend. We need to continue to invest in medical research that will lead to immeasurable contributions in the fight against a number of serious illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. At a time when we are the verge of major new breakthroughs and the burden of chronic disease continues to grow, we should not shortchange a priority as important as promising medical research.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia (D) and chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, writes:

Predictable and sustained research investments are necessary if we are to prevent the loss of our competitive edge, which is why I have fought for R&D investments for many years.  The United States has historically enacted policies that deliberately advance science and technology through creating the economic and intellectual conditions needed for innovation. The international community is now recognizing areas of policy that have enabled the United States to maintain its competitive edge in science and technology. Countries like Japan, Germany, China, and South Korea have developed the technology to compete in industries once dominated by the United States.

An area where the United States continues to lead, for example, is in nanotechnology R&D and commercialization, but the European Union and Russia have outspent the U.S. in government funding for nanotechnology research. The Senate Commerce Committee has focused on national investment in nanotechnology and its potential to transform such fields as health care, homeland security, and information technology. Continued funding and new legislation would help to fully realize the economic return on the federal investment in this area. The National Nanotechnology Initiative is a great example of cross-agency cooperation working toward shared goals and priorities that has allowed the U.S. to gain global leadership in the field. The United States is able to pioneer research and development, but we will need to translate early successes into effective commercialization if we want to reap the full economic potential of new fields.

Concurrent with the long-term investments in research is the need to invest in STEM education. The trend is clear: Globalization and outsourcing, combined with a decrease in U.S. preeminence in scientific and technological advancement, has led to job losses. The United States has lost 28 percent of the high-technology manufacturing jobs that existed in 2000 while nearly 85 percent of R&D-related employment growth by U.S. multinational companies since 2004 has been abroad. Policies to encourage STEM education for U.S. students and contribute to effective learning will increase our workforce's capabilities to compete in a 21st Century global economy.

Our nation's competitiveness and economic prosperity, however, depends on encouraging more participation in the research enterprise. The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) was created to help states underfunded by the National Science Foundation develop the research capacity necessary to compete on a global scale. Our economic future depends on research capabilities extending beyond top-tier universities and institutions to facilities where innovation can still thrive.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, Maryland–8 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on the Budget, writes:

We can maintain America's global leadership by prioritizing investments in research and development as part of a balanced plan and fiscally responsible budget. In fact, the budget proposed by President Obama and mirrored in the House Democratic budget achieves this goal.  While cutting the deficit, the Democratic budget ensures the U.S. remains a world leader in innovation by supporting the next generation of scientific leaders.  In contrast, the Republican budget threatens this funding by reducing non–defense discretionary funds by $26.6 billion, or 5.3% below the level in the Democratic budget.  Over ten years, the Republican budget cuts non–defense spending by $900 billion, or 17% below the Democratic budget.

Representative Henry Waxman, California–30 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, writes:

It is critically important that we prioritize funding for clean energy initiatives.  We need to end our dependence on oil, which hurts consumers at the pump and threatens our climate and national security.  Congress should support this Administration's clean energy initiatives because our economic future depends on building the clean energy industries of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the Republicans seek to dismantle many of our government's clean energy initiatives.  During this Congress, the Republican House voted 52 times to defund or repeal clean energy initiatives.  The Republican budget, introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan, would slash discretionary spending for energy programs by over 50% next year, derailing efforts to increase energy efficiency and develop wind, solar, geothermal, and other clean energy sources.  The Ryan budget would also repeal funding for the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program and the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program.  At the same time, the Republican budget continues to provide $40 billion in tax breaks for oil companies. 

The priorities reflected in the Republican budget are backwards:  we should be cutting subsidies to established profitable industries like the oil companies and investing in new technologies.


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This article was originally published with the title "Why Science Is Better When It's Multinational."

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