Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE  November 1998 


A Science Policy for the Next 50 Years?

by David Applegate

In late September, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) held a press conference in a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill to unveil a long-awaited report. It was then immediately posted on the House web site. But unlike a certain other report, the demand for this one has yet to overload the congressional internet servers. The report is entitled Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy, and it was prepared not by the Office of Independent Counsel but by the House Science Committee, specifically by committee vice-chair Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), a former college physics professor (a "Comment" by Ehlers appeared in the April 1998 issue of Geotimes). Its subject is science policy, specifically the current state of the nation's science and technology enterprise and a framework for an updated national science policy in the post-Cold War era.

The Ehlers study is an appropriate topic for this special issue of Geotimes, which celebrates AGI's 50th anniversary. To begin with, the study quite consciously seeks to take up the mantle of Vannevar Bush's report Science - The Endless Frontier, written just three years before the founding of AGI. Submitted to President Harry Truman in the closing days of World War II, the Bush report has in many ways defined the nation's science policy over the past half-century.

Also in keeping with AGI's 50th celebration, the focus of the study is squarely on the future rather than the past. With the development of Earth Science Week, AGI is committing itself to a larger role for public outreach. Just so, the Ehlers study emphasizes the need for better communication between scientists and the public, arguing that "re-forging ... ties with the American people is perhaps the single most important challenge facing science and engineering in the near future."

That emphasis on communication is one of the principal changes from the original Bush report, written at a time when a general sense of urgency about national security was enough to generate public support for science. Another change is in the addition of a new rationale for government funding of research. The Bush report outlined three rationales - national security, health, and the economy - to which the Ehlers study adds a fourth: helping society make good decisions, particularly environmental. This last rationale is particularly relevant to the geosciences, and the study specifically cites the contributions of geology and seismology to earthquake hazard mitigation.

An Open Process
The study was initiated in February 1997 with a charge by Speaker Gingrich to the House Science Committee to "develop a long-range science and technology policy for the nation." Considerable public input went into the study, much to Ehlers' credit. Seven hearings were held as well as several roundtable discussions. In addition, Ehlers met with many scientists and engineers. A number of geoscience societies and individual geoscientists responded to calls by AGI and others to provide feedback.

The 74-page report is fundamentally a consensus document and does not go into specific implementation plans nor does it seek to prioritize among disciplines. Its principal value is in its ability to focus attention on specific issues and problems rather than as a cohesive future road map for research. As such, it may unintentionally be reflecting the diversified and decentralized nature of civilian scientific research in this country. The tone of the report is generally positive, and it does not call for a major overhaul of the science and technology enterprise. Instead, it focuses on three basic components that require strengthening: fundamental research (the well of scientific discovery), application of discoveries to society's needs (the well must not stagnate), and education (replenishing the well).

The Valley of Death
The Ehlers study contains many echoes of the Bush report. Both emphasize the unique role of government in basic research and education, leaving more applied research and development to the private sector. As stated in the Bush report: "The most important ways in which the government can promote industrial research are to increase the flow of new scientific knowledge through support of basic research, and to aid in the development of scientific talent." Both reports also call on government incentives to encourage private-sector research, including a favorable tax code and strong intellectual property protections.

Although the Ehlers study supports the traditional arrangement of government support for upstream basic research and private sector support for downstream applied research, it also recognizes that such a system can lead to a "research gap between basic science and product development." Indeed, the study finds that such a gap - referred to as the "Valley of Death" - exists and is widening due to federal belt-tightening and increasingly short-term industrial research programs. This situation is particularly evident in the geosciences where the major petroleum and mining companies have significantly downsized their research labs and have refocused on projects with short-term payoffs. In addition to proposing incentives, the Ehlers study suggests partnerships between government, industry, and academia as a possible means of bridging the gap. It also calls on state governments to take on a greater role in fostering such partnerships.

Turning Words Into Action
Reaction to the Ehlers study from the scientific and engineering community has been generally positive. In addition, the bipartisan Senate Science and Technology Caucus has endorsed the study. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Neal Lane says the report is "harmonious with the President's goals." House Science Committee ranking Democrat George Brown (D-Calif.), however, has not endorsed it, arguing that it fails to take on issues that are "most important to the future health of the scientific enterprise." Supporters of the Ehlers report counter that it should be viewed as the first step down the right path.

The report now goes before the full House as a resolution. Both Democrats and Republicans predict that it will pass. It would then be sent to the Senate.  Although nonbinding, passage of the resolution would raise the study's profile and set the stage for using its recommendations as an agenda for the House Science Committee in the upcoming 106th Congress.  Some of the report's strongest words are reserved for the state of K-12 science and math education, and Gingrich used the press conference to call for a joint study by the House Science and Education Committees to follow up on the education recommendations in this study.

Scientists are encouraged to express their views on the Ehlers study, which is available on the Web at http://www. house.gov/science/science_policy_study.htm. Science Committee staff have indicated that they welcome suggestions on how to proceed to the next phase, turning a policy study into political action.

David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs
govt@agiweb.org


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