The election of a Democrat president with a Republican Congress is good news for American scientists but does not mean the funding squeeze will ease up, argues Albert Teich.
Bill Clinton's victory this week over Bob Dole in the United States presidential election should give mild cheer to the US scientific community. The Clinton-Gore ticket was endorsed by a group of over 500 scientists and engineers, including a raft of Nobel Laureates, in a statement released a week before the election. Many of the endorsers apparently joined in the action because of fears about the potential impacts on research funding of Dole's proposed 15 per cent tax cut.
In his first term, Clinton was generally supportive of federal basic research, but his administration devoted most of its energies in the science and technology arena to promoting commercial technology development. Several initiatives were launched early in the term while the Democrats were in control of Congress. Faced with strong opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress during the past two years, Clinton was forced to fight to preserve his technology programmes as well as to fend off Republican efforts to dismantle government departments with key roles in supporting research.
The battles over technology policy are set to continue with Congress still in Republican hands. And, despite the Clinton victory, prospects for support of basic science (the kind of frontier research done largely in universities) over the next several years are cloudy at best, as both Clinton and the Republicans are committed to budget plans that converge towards a zero deficit in 2002.
While support for basic science remains bipartisan, there are sharp differences between the two major political parties over technology policy. Democrats have long favoured an activist approach that uses direct government support of research and development to encourage technology development in the private sector. Clinton made industrial competitiveness an important issue in his 1992 election campaign. Although the initiatives he announced in 1993 stopped short of establishing a US version of Japan's ministry of international trade and industry, they did include several moves to stimulate high-tech development. Among them was a large boost in the Commerce Department's "Advanced Technology Program" (ATP), a programme that supports "precompetitive" research on commercial technologies through government-industry partnerships.
ATP was initiated by congressional Democrats in the late 1980s over the objections of Republicans. With Clinton in the White House and the Democrats in control of Congress, its annual budget grew from $64 million in 1992 to $409 million in 1995. Republicans opposed these increases but were unable to stop them. After the 1994 election, ATP became a prime target of the new Republican leadership in Congress. While they did not succeed in killing the programme, they did scale it down by half, to $225 million this year.
At the root of the ATP controversy is a deep ideological schism between the parties on the role of government vis-a-vis the private sector. Although Republicans share the Democrats' view that technology is a key element in economic growth, they differ sharply on how government can best foster that growth. Republicans regard programmes like ATP which provide direct support to research in private firms as "corporate welfare" - inefficient investments that are unfair to other firms as well as a waste of tax dollars. They prefer an indirect approach, employing tax policies and deregulation to encourage private sector investment in research.
President Clinton remains committed to ATP and the Democratic platform affirmed his commitment, while alluding ominously to "Republican efforts to undermine America's dedication to innovation." Congressional Republicans see things quite differently. Many share Bob Dole's view that programmes like ATP put government in the position of "a venture capitalist, trying to pick winners in the technology race, rather than letting American industry play its natural role." The Republicans stress their support for federal basic research programmes and will probably continue to oppose ATP and other programmes aimed at commercial technology development. The probable outcome is likely to be a compromise, maintaining ATP and similar programmes but with a lower funding level than the president would like.
For the past two years, Republicans in Congress have sought in vain to eliminate the departments of energy and commerce (as well as education and housing and urban development) in order to cut the federal budget and "downsize" the federal government. While not motivated by animosity toward science, such a move would have major implications for federal research. The Department of Energy administers several large national laboratories (including, for example, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Fermilab) that perform not only energy research but also basic research and nuclear weapons development. The Commerce Department's work includes not only ATP, but also basic research in the physical sciences and applied research on oceans, the atmosphere and global climate change.
Clinton has fought to preserve the energy and commerce departments, stressing the need to streamline - "reinvent" rather than scrap - these and other government agencies. After two years of heated debate, some of the steam may have gone out of the drive to eliminate these departments. The Energy Department seems secure because two of its largest laboratories are in (and provide great economic benefit to) New Mexico, a state well represented by Senator Pete Domenici, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate. The Commerce Department is less well-protected, but buoyed by Clinton's support over the past two years, it may be a less-inviting target for the next Congress.
Because it has long been an area of bipartisan consensus, support for basic science does not usually receive much attention in American politics. The 11th-hour endorsements of scientists notwithstanding, the 1996 campaign was no exception. Both the Democratic and Republican platforms cited the value of basic research and promised to expand support for it. Beyond this, however, neither candidate has had much to say. While scientists might like more explicit attention from political leaders, the absence of controversy might be seen as an indication that the framework of relations between science and government is remaining stable despite the end of the cold war and the 1994 upheaval in Congress.
Nevertheless, the discussions of government structure and technology policy, as well as the bipartisan affirmations of support for basic research, are all taking place against a background of deep concern about the federal budget. After a year of bitter controversy following the congressional election of 1994, the Clinton administration accepted the Republican goal of bringing the federal budget into balance by the year 2002. Both parties now agree, at least on paper, on the broad outlines of a plan that would eliminate the federal deficit while allowing social security (the national pension plan) and other so-called "entitlement" programmes to continue growing. Under both budget plans, the necessary savings would be made by cutting "discretionary" spending sharply over the next six years. Research and development is considered discretionary spending, and projections of non-defence work under both plans suggest that it would fall by about 20 per cent in real terms by 2002.
President Clinton has side-stepped discussion of this rather grim outlook. For the past several months, administration officials have assured scientists that their budget projections for future years do not represent real policy directions and that research will be treated better than the current numbers suggest. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, indicate they will protect basic research while balancing the budget by cutting commercial technology programmes and improving the efficiency of government.
Apparently, the 515 scientists and engineers who gave their endorsement to Clinton were willing to accept these vague assurances - at least insofar as prospects looked worse under the Dole budget plan. Nevertheless, their dilemma highlights the fact that while support for research is bipartisan, it is also a "residual" issue, and its fate will be determined mainly by the larger trends that shape government spending. As long as both Democrats and Republicans are committed to balancing the federal budget primarily by cutting discretionary spending, funding for research is going to be squeezed in a vice, and the jaws of this vice - the government's self-imposed limits on discretionary spending - will only tighten from one year to the next.
Albert H. Teich is director of science policy programmes, American Association for the Advancement of Science.