|One of the first things a visitor to the House Committee
on Science hearing room notices are the words from Isaiah etched into the
wall above the dais where committee members sit: “Without vision, the people
will perish.” Fortunately for all of us, a rather rumpled, courtly, and
self-deprecating gentleman had been seated below those words, not only
dispensing his own vision for science but, more importantly, challenging
scientists to develop and articulate their own collective vision. His work
far from complete, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. passed away July 16 at the
age of 79, succumbing to a post-operative infection following open-heart
surgery he underwent in May.
Brown leaves behind a legacy as one of science’s greatest champions in Congress — yet one with a sharply critical eye for the shortcomings of the scientific enterprise. He saw science as a marvelous tool for improving the human condition. Thus, his efforts for science cannot be separated from his leadership in the struggle for civil rights and environmental protection. President Clinton eulogized that “George Brown’s support for science was drawn from his deep belief that science and technology could help achieve a peaceful world and a just society.”
Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.). Photo courtesy of the Office of the 42nd Congressional District of California.
Brown’s contributions to the advancement of science and to the application of science to policy-making are legion. He led efforts to expand the role of the National Science Foundation to include science education, was a tireless advocate of manned and unmanned space exploration, and endlessly promoted greater international scientific cooperation. He also developed legislation that created the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and championed establishing the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (which was subsequently abolished in 1995). These agencies have provided policy-makers with a steady conduit for relevant scientific information.
Brown was a particularly strong advocate for environmental research and earthquake hazards reduction. He was a major proponent of the 1970 creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and tirelessly championed the continuing need for a better scientific understanding of natural systems and human impacts upon them. Brown also supported expanding climate change research and continuing the Landsat remote-sensing system. He was the father of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), authoring the original 1977 legislation that created this interagency initiative to encourage scientific and engineering research and apply scientific results to meet society’s needs. The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act culminated efforts to learn from the deadly 1971 San Fernando earthquake, which made Southern Californians keenly aware of their vulnerability to a major seismic event. Brown also leveraged the 1989 Loma Prieta event into a significant increase for NEHRP appropriations.
Brown’s support for science was all the more unique in that it extended well beyond steering funds to a university or laboratory in his Southern California district. Rather than sticking to parochial interests, he viewed science from a national perspective. Despite having the University of California at Riverside in his district, he sallied forth against the practice of earmarking funds in appropriations bills for specific science projects and facilities. He considered such “academic pork” to be a congressional short-circuit of the scientific system of merit-based peer review. His battles with the Appropriations Committee over earmarking are legendary, most notably those with Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) when Murtha chaired the defense appropriations subcommittee. In 1993, after Brown publicized which science projects were earmarked in the defense spending bill, Murtha responded by slashing funds for all defense research — if Murtha couldn’t have his projects, then nobody would have any. The funding was eventually restored, and Brown continued to argue that merit should be decided by peer review, not by politics.
A Philosopher Politician
As chairman of the House Committee on Science and later as its ranking democrat, Brown created an oasis of scientific and technical expertise on Capitol Hill. Himself the recipient of a degree in industrial physics from the University of California-Los Angeles, Brown placed many scientists and engineers on his staff. He was a strong supporter of the congressional science fellowship program since its 1973 inception and frequently employed fellows, including several geoscientists, at both his personal and committee offices. His staff viewed him as more philosopher than politician. Former staffer Dan Sarewitz, in the preface to his book Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Progress, thanked Brown “for creating a wonderfully stimulating and challenging intellectual environment in that most unlikely of all settings: the United States House of Representatives.”
Being described as both a philosopher and as a leader who had a national perspective would seem to have doomed Brown’s chances as an electable politician. It is indeed true that he received barely 50 percent of the vote in each of his elections since 1980. But his careful attention to constituent services and his trust-evoking candor saw him through to serve 18 terms and become the longest-serving representative in California’s history.
A Man of Vision
In a 1993 speech at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Brown challenged his audience to develop a “new and better vision” for science in society. He argued that technological advancements absent of guiding principles are not enough: “Progress is meaningless if we don’t know where we’re going. Unless we try to visualize what is beyond the horizon, we will always occupy the same shore.”
As a scientific community, we must take up Brown’s challenge to define a vision that can take us to the far shore. We must also take up his admonition “to become more involved with the political process and the needs of the broader society — in other words, be more effective citizens.” Getting involved means more than just engaging in science policy debates but becoming engaged in the many societal issues that science can inform and improve.
Although Brown will not be here to guide us, we must cultivate others who will — leaders who recognize the value of science but are yet mindful of its limitations. We cannot wait for such leaders to appear. We must go out and find them. In an era of overwhelming cynicism about government and, particularly, about leaders in Washington, George Brown’s passing gives us an opportunity to recognize that such cynicism is not always justified. In a statement issued at the time of Brown’s death, his wife, Marta Macias Brown, said: “George believed that public service was a noble calling, that an individual could make a difference and that through persuasion and reason we could build a better society.” Amen to that.
AGI Director of Government Affairs