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Political Scene

Mr. Smith in Washington: Fighting for Science
Dan Byers

Cynicism can be a contagious disease in Washington, D.C. Even those with the strongest faith in the governmental process are not immune to it. The breadth and number of competing interests is mind-boggling, and sometimes it seems that all too often political agendas win out over “good government” policies (although they are not necessarily mutually exclusive).

Try as I might to resist, I have admittedly grown a little bit cynical myself during my five years on Capitol Hill. But with Election Day fast approaching, and optimism now the mood du jour, I feel it is appropriate to share my own positive experience working on reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) with Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.).

Congressman Smith is not the stereotypical Washington politician. With his dairy farmer background and folksy demeanor, Smith is refreshingly (and self-admittedly) sometimes out of place in a Congress dominated by lawyer- and business-types. While he is best-known as a budget hawk and Social Security policy ace, during his time as chairman of the Science Comm-ittee Subcommittee on Research, he has also become a strong advocate for strengthening federal support for research and development.

Among its responsibilities, the research subcommittee maintains oversight of NEHRP. So during the spring and summer of 2003, Smith and other members of the subcommittee began to review the program, which was set to expire, in preparation for crafting reauthorization legislation (programmatic guidance and funding recommendations).

Shaky ground

Officially set into motion in 1977 as a result of longtime efforts by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and others, and later championed by national figures such as Sens. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), George Brown (D-Calif.), and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), NEHRP is a collaborative earthquake hazards mitigation effort involving four federal agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Geological Survey, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Overall, the program has achieved significant progress in its first 25 years and is generally considered to have been a successful undertaking. Loss of life and injuries sustained from earthquakes have decreased substantially; seismic risk assessment capabilities have significantly improved; and technological advances in areas such as performance-based engineering, information technology, and sensing and imaging have provided valuable knowledge and tools for mitigating earthquake hazards.

New knowledge and tools, however, have not translated into decreased overall vulnerability. Often described as the “implementation gap,” end-user adoption of NEHRP innovations has been incremental and slower than expected. This gap is in part because current building codes tend to focus on protecting the lives of the occupants rather than on minimizing non-structural damage and economic losses. Further, the cost of rehabilitating existing structures to become more earthquake resistant is often too high, as is the cost of building new structures to minimize risk. The private sector has not had adequate incentives, and state and local governments have generally not had adequate budgets, to take steps to address these challenges.

The slow implementation of new mitigation technologies, combined with continued widespread development in areas of high seismic risk, has resulted in a rapid and steady increase in societal vulnerability to a major earthquake. Potential loss estimates of a large earthquake in a major U.S. urban area now approach $200 billion.

Like many interagency programs, NEHRP’s contributions to earthquake mitigation have been limited to some extent by ineffective planning and coordination. As we in the research subcommittee learned during a series of meetings and hearings, FEMA was largely to blame. The agency seemed inherently unable to effectively coordinate with other program agencies or to conduct reporting and other lead agency responsibilities.

Stepping up

Suffice it to say, South Central Michigan is not an earthquake hotspot, and it would have been very easy for Smith to focus his time and efforts on other issues while simply introducing a bare-bones “numbers bill” that continued to fund the program for the next several years without any policy changes. But after learning about the challenges facing NEHRP, as well as the steadily growing vulnerability to earthquakes, he concluded that the program was in need of a significant revitalization effort, if it were to remain successful. To that end, Smith sat down with the staff to “scrub” the existing NEHRP law, to find ways it could be improved and to consider changes to the program suggested by both federal and nonfederal representatives of the earthquake community.

The result was H.R. 2608, which he introduced in June 2003. The bill reauthorizes NEHRP for three additional years and makes several significant changes to the program. Most notably, it transfers lead agency responsibilities over the program to NIST, reflecting the call within the earthquake community as well as in the NEHRP Strategic Plan for an increased emphasis on closing the implementation gap and promoting the adoption of hazard reduction technologies into practice.

Going forward

While the legislation passed the House overwhelmingly last October, it has languished in the Senate for most of 2004. At press time, however, the prospects for passage of the NEHRP reauthorization legislation this Congress were improving significantly. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee was scheduled to take up H.R. 2608 before the end of July. And, if August negotiations to reach a compromise agreement between the House and Senate versions of the bill are successful, chances are strong that both chambers can pass a final version of the bill and send it to the president for signature before Congress’ target adjournment date of Oct. 1.

Getting H.R. 2608 signed into law will not by itself ensure a successful revitalization of NEHRP and subsequent reduction in vulnerability to earthquake hazards. The executive branch will need to follow through on leadership, coordination and other programmatic changes called for in the bill, and (perhaps more importantly) Congress will need to follow through by providing funding as close to the authorized levels as possible. But in my biased opinion, the legislation does show great promise to make positive and lasting changes to an important program at a crossroads.

It will also be a nice feather in the cap for Smith, who will be retiring this November after 12 years in Congress. Certainly, Smith didn’t come to Congress with an interest in earthquake policy. Rather, his interest grew after hearing the concerns and suggestions presented to him by representatives of the earthquake hazards community (such as the American Geological Institute) and concluding that, if directed to the right priorities and implemented as a true interagency program, taxpayer-funded investments in NEHRP can be leveraged many times over.

I think that Smith’s efforts on the NEHRP legislation illustrate the need for scientists to continually engage members of Congress in policy matters of which they may not be familiar, but may be interested in championing after learning more. Doing so will also help people like me avoid that pesky cynicism bug for just a little bit longer.

Byers is staff director of the Science Committee Subcommittee on Research and was the 1999-2000 Soil Science Society of America Congressional Fellow.

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