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THE CUTTING EDGE | INNOVATION

The Cold War Has Given Way to War on R & D

May 06, 1996|Gary Chapman

Ever since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the United States' consensus for public investment in science and technology has been crumbling. But only now is it becoming clear just how fully science and technology policy has been engulfed in the partisan warfare that now grips Washington--and just how dangerous that conflict may be for the country.

For 50 years, the Cold War was the glue that held together U.S. science and technology policy. That half-century conflict provided the rationale for the funding of the most immense and significant array of scientific and technological enterprise in human history. Almost everything we take for granted as "high tech"--the Internet, for example--has its roots in that epic struggle of national security.

It wasn't really surprising that the Cold War created a crisis of purpose for much of the nation's scientific establishment. But the level of ideological rancor in an area that enjoyed nonpartisan consensus for so long has nonetheless come as something of a shock.

Two weeks ago, the House Science Committee's Republican majority passed an authorization for the National Science Foundation that cuts $75 million from that agency's $3.3-billion budget request for 1997, including a $132-million cut in research funds. The Republicans also directed the NSF to eliminate one of its seven directorates, which most observers believe is a message from committee Chairman Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) to NSF Director Neal Lane to get rid of NSF-sponsored research in the social sciences.

Last year, in public speeches, Walker belittled the social sciences as "not real science" and too "politically correct" for his tastes--even though social science funding has been part of NSF's mission since the agency was founded 40 years ago.

House Republicans have also gutted environmental R & D, tried to eliminate the Commerce Department and favored Energy Department research on weapons and nuclear energy programs while slashing research on renewable energy, oceanography, meteorology and global climate change. Conversely, the Republicans plan big budget increases for "Star Wars" and the space station, programs that have little support or respect from the scientific and technical communities.

This frontal assault on government-funded R & D has been accompanied by blistering ideological rhetoric. In the same week that the two scientists who first noticed global warming won the Nobel Prize, the House Science Committee was holding hearings on how global warming is "liberal claptrap," as committee member Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) put it. George E. Brown Jr. (D-San Bernardino), the ranking minority member on the committee, calls Walker "the most ideologically driven chairman in the entire House."

Lewis Branscomb, director of Harvard University's Program on Science and Technology Policy, recalls a time of bipartisanship. He notes that the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, a target fatally wounded by last year's budget cuts, was started in the Nixon administration. Branscomb himself, a registered Democrat, was appointed the head of the National Bureau of Standards by Nixon. Rep. Brown points out that several of the civilian technology programs Walker wants to kill were started in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

"Things have been going downhill for quite a while," Branscomb said in reference to the new partisanship over science and technology policy. "Conflict over something like the Advanced Technology Program [at the Commerce Department] is understandable--either you're for that or you're against it. But if this ideological conflict spills over into academic science and engineering programs, I consider that extremely dangerous."

Within the new fringe of right-wing groups that are influencing the Republican Party is a profound disaffection with modern science and technology. A number of the freshman radicals in Congress are sympathetic to the teaching of "creationism" in public schools. Some Western representatives have ties to the "wise use" movement of anti-environmentalists who have labeled "ecology" un-American and who want this concept banned from school textbooks. Pat Buchanan has called Earth Day an event to "worship dirt."

Many Democrats, on the other hand, are locked into such a rosy, Disney-esque vision of our high-tech future that they are falling out of step with the rest of the country. Democratic Party leaders, led by Vice President Al Gore, are promoting a utopia of more and better technology despite growing public fears about downsizing, bad jobs, low wages and endless, meaningless consumerism.

The president's advisors have so far failed to deliver any compelling rationale for why the public should support scientific and technological investment in the post-Cold War era. The goal of global "competitiveness" was once supposed to fill the gap, but too many Americans now regard that mantra as little more than a code word for layoffs and lower wages.

Crafting a science and technology policy that could appeal to ordinary Americans is a tremendous opportunity for President Clinton in this year's campaign. Americans know that we need science and technology and that we can't surrender either to the whims of the market or the theocratic tendencies of the radical religious right. But most Americans aren't likely to swallow vague and far-off promises of an improved standard of living by supporting scientists and engineers doing anything they want to do.

Without a new, unifying theme that can help suppress the ideological firefights in the Congress, U.S. science and engineering could be damaged for a generation or more.

* Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas in Austin. His e-mail address is gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu

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