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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
January/February 2001
Volume 54, Number 1
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons
A Faith-Based Science Policy?
FAS Welcomes Sherman to Staff
R&D A Priority For FAS Newest Project
Defense Export "Reforms" Revisited
FAS Obtains First Bush Presidential Directive


A Faith-Based Science Policy?

By Henry Kelly

Americans have a right to expect that the President will have the best possible advice both about facts defining his choices and the values that should be brought to the decision. And they have a right to expect that he can tell the difference. It's a bad sign that the new President is pushing forward on many complex issues _ including preparing his first budget _ without any apparent source of advice from the science community. No Science Advisor to the President has been named (let alone confirmed) and few, if any, of the Cabinet members managing major federal research portfolios come with any experience or instincts in managing science and technology.

While Clinton named his Science Advisor along with his cabinet, the elder Bush waited a full five months before having a science advisor in place _ well after the internal alliances that defined the network of Presidential decision-making had been solidified. This created enormous problems; scientists in the White House find their work difficult even in the best of circumstances. Science advisors easily become the odd person out in political circles _ someone who can be counted on to tell amusing stories about Mars rocks before everyone else gets down to dealing with the serious issues of the day.

The absence of sound scientific advice is becoming increasingly dangerous. There's much at stake and less room for error in science policy. It's hard to find a major policy issue that doesn't hinge in some important way on advances in computers and communication, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and a host of fields defined by other mouth-filling terms. Technical advances play a central role in economic growth, in national security, and finding affordable ways to improve the natural environment.

The price being paid is already visible. The administration's budget increases spending for NIH by $2.8 billion but dangerously shortchanges research in most other areas. A $50 million increase is requested for NSF_ not enough to cover inflation. The DOE's civilian research programs will certainly be hurt _ squeezed between an overall cut in the DOE budget and a requested increase for stockpile stewardship. Defense research may be highly focused on a crash effort to develop and deploy a ballistic missile system _ at the expense of much needed long-term research in DARPA and other agencies. The irony, of course, is that medical research relies in essential ways on advances in physics, chemistry, information technology, and other areas supported outside of NIH _ areas weakened in the current budget. The administration's very public reversal on policy about climate change appears to have been made without any serious effort to consult the scientific community _ in or outside the administration.

The delay in picking a science advisor may result from the administration's inability to find a respectable scientist willing to support positions where dogma collides with the positions of the scientific community. I'd suggest the following questions for anyone chosen:

  • Are you willing to defend tax cuts even if this clearly translates into deep reductions in federal R&D budgets? The hypothetical budget surpluses the administration proposes to give away through tax cuts are based on an assumption that domestic spending will be tightly controlled. If tax cuts go through but the surpluses are not realized, there will be a frantic search for savings. Things will be worse if there are sharp increases in defense spending. Research funding always looks like something that can be postponed.
  • Are you willing to tell the truth about the feasibility of ballistic missile defense systems? If there's anything clearly worse than being undefended against missile attacks, it is believing that you're safe when you're not. Will you have the courage to speak the truth on this issue?
  • Will you prevent Americans with Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and other debilitating illnesses and injuries from enjoying the benefits of medical advances that can be achieved using stem cells? Anti-abortion extremists want to block promising research because of misinformed fears that it would encourage abortions. Will you have the courage to stand up to this hysteria?
  • Will you recognize the critical role federal funding plays in ensuring that federal research helps ensure a clean environment and a secure, affordable energy supply? Drilling for oil in every US park will not come close to providing the amount of energy that can be saved by advances in technology possible in our automobiles, appliances, and industrial equipment. Will you be able to stand up to zealots who argue that the federal government has no role in applied research and explain that private incentives to invest in major innovations are seldom strong enough and federal funding is essential?

The new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives began work quickly but the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is still being manned by Clinton holdovers who, for obvious reasons, are largely shut out of the decision making process. An effective science and technology advisor can ensure that America's best scientific minds are brought to bear on critical national issues. Is the administration uninterested _ or is it afraid _ of the advice they might offer?