April 8, 2004
Kerry, Congress Should Fight Bush Science Cuts

By Mort Kondracke

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is blaming President Bush too much for "sending American jobs overseas," but nowhere near enough for risking U.S. technological leadership by underfunding basic scientific research.

Only about 100,000 of the 1.8 million jobs lost during the Bush presidency went overseas, but experts say that millions of jobs - in fact, America's place in the world - could be lost if other countries gain dominance in new technologies. Not only should Kerry be raising more hell about this, but Congress, instead of slathering pork into the pending highway bill, ought to spend a few billion dollars to increase Bush's budgets for the National Science Foundation, science programs at the Departments of Energy and Defense, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Ever since World War II, the United States has led the world in science, developing computers, semiconductors, the Internet, satellites, lasers, lightweight new materials, robotics, fiber optics, medicines, imaging systems like MRIs and instant global communication.

Such products, all originated through federally funded research, kept America the richest nation on earth. Academic studies show that between half and 80 percent of US productivity and economic growth is linked to technological innovation.

But various experts, including some Republicans, warn that the United States is in danger of losing its edge - with profound consequences for the economy and national security - because of underinvestment in basic research. Underfunding - or actual cuts - could cost American leadership in major new technologies, including hydrogen and fusion research for energy, new semiconductors, computer simulation of complex systems like the environment, stem cells as a disease cure, exploitation of discoveries from the human genome project and nanotechnology, the development of atom-sized systems. The Bush administration claims that it has made "a record federal investment in research and development," projecting outlays increasing 44 percent during Bush's first term.

However, scientific groups like the American Physical Society and the Association of American Universities dispute the Bush case, asserting that his spending is heavily skewed toward short-term defense and homeland security "development" and skimps on long-term basic research in physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering.

For instance, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the leading federal sponsor of physical science research, is scheduled for a 2 percent cut in Bush's new budget.

The National Science Foundation is slated for a 3 percent increase, but that's far short of the 15 percent authorized by Congress in 2002. Defense "research and development" is up by 7 percent, but basic and applied research - as opposed to weapons development - is down by 11 percent in Bush's budget.

One Republican who's protesting is former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who told me that "it's a grave risk for the country's future not to be investing heavily in basic research."

"There are five parallel revolutions under way in science," he said, listing information technology, communications, nanoscience, quantum mechanics and biology. "These five will change our world," he said.

"The amount of scientific knowledge we gain in the next 25 years will equal or exceed that of the whole 20th century. For the United States not to be in the forefront of that is to risk our national security and our economy. "We're not going to be able to compete with China and India in the next 25 years if we graduate more lawyers than we do scientists," he added. "We're engaged in a huge misallocation of priorities to spend as much as we do overall and not spend more for science."

Another Republican, former Lockheed-Martin President Norman Augustine, said in an interview that "America's ability to keep its standard of living and create jobs has to be based on creating knowledge, and our ability to do that is in considerable trouble."

He said that "more than half of all our graduate students and PhD's in the hard sciences nowadays are foreign students. They used to stay here and become Americans. Now, if they can get here in the first place because of visa restrictions, a lot of them are going to go back home because the future is brighter there."

Augustine, making Washington visits on behalf of the American Physical Society, said that federal investment in basic research - except for biomedical research - has been "flat" for more than 20 years as a percentage of gross domestic product, and the Bush administration isn't improving the picture.

"This jobless recovery we're in may be the leading edge of the future," he said. "Our failure to invest in new seed corn may be coming back to haunt us." So what's to be done? For one thing, there's a golden political opportunity here for Kerry to pounce on Bush's sad record and be the "science candidate" in 2004. To some extent, he's done so, promising in an October 2003 speech at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to increase NIH and NSF funding, undo Bush's limits on stem-cell research and stop alleged political interference in scientific studies of the environment and energy.

Kerry also has issued a high-technology position paper largely built around extending broadband computer access to all homes, businesses and health facilities, and he has promised to make the R&D tax credit for corporations permanent.

But Kerry could do more - specifically by mentioning Bush's research record as part of every speech and by building a full research platform of his own. Meantime, Congress needs to raise Bush's budget recommendations. The cost for adequately funding space research, the NSF, defense and energy research would be about $4 billion - a pittance compared with what Congress is prepared to shell out in highway pork.

As Gingrich told me, "the problem is that science isn't as well organized as the industries of the past are to lobby for money. Those industries get the government to prop up the past, but science is inventing the future." Congress ought to listen to its old leader. So should Bush.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

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