`Gadfly Bob' Is In The Catbird SeatJohn Carey
Ever since Pennsylvania voters sent him to Congress in 1977, Representative Robert S. Walker has been one of the Republicans' most aggressive zealots. He led fierce, losing battles against Clinton Administration programs he considered ill-conceived "industrial policy" or plain dumb, especially plans to boost funding for research and development in industry. Walker even brought a staffer's pooch to Capitol Hill to sniff a solar doghouse developed by the Energy Dept. "Gadfly Bob," Democrats called him.
Today, the 52-year-old Walker no longer has to fight what he calls "a guerrilla war." With the GOP victory in November, "we gadflies are now the system," he says. As chairman of the House Science Committee, vice-chairman of the House Budget Committee, and a close friend of Speaker Newt Gingrich, much of the Walker's agenda may become policy.
His committee has rushed to pass legislation requiring risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses before agencies issue major rules, with the goal of easing the regulatory burden on companies. He's also sponsoring a bill to redirect $100 million of Energy Dept. money to hydrogen research, a fuel he believes "has amazing potential." And he's about to reassess how the government stimulates science and technology, which could lead to more general tax credits and funding cuts for specific technologies. "He's not just `Crazy Bob,"' says a veteran Democratic aide. "There's a lot of substance there, too."
As Walker, a licensed race-car driver and Corvette buff, roars into the fast lane, some technology experts question if it's the right substance. Walker holds a passionate belief in the power of science and technology to transform and improve society. "We can invent our way out of many problems," he says. That's a welcome message to the science community, which expects him to shield funding for basic research.
But many research mavens worry that Walker's enthusiasm is marred by misunderstandings and contradictions. He insists that the "federal government's role should be limited to largely basic research." However, industry experts say drawing stark lines between applied and basic research is impossible. "Walker is naive about how R&D operates in a corporation," says one chemical-industry executive. Indeed, "many of his ideas may turn out to be totally off-the-wall," adds Representative George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.).
WHIPPING BOYS. Walker's preferred whipping boys are Clinton programs such as the $431 million Advanced Technology Program (ATP) at Commerce and the $443 million Defense Dept. Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP), which fund high-risk research of interest to companies. He calls the programs a big step toward a misguided industrial policy. The nature of government "makes it impossible to pick winners instead of losers," he says. In fact, Republicans are trying to rescind money already appropriated for these programs.
That's a big mistake, says J. Michael Bowman, vice-president for advanced materials at DuPont Co. Federal funds, he says, support fundamental science, not product development, as Walker staffers claim. "The Republicans don't have a good understanding of the programs," Bowman says. Victoria F. Haynes, vice-president for research at B.F. Goodrich Co., adds that federal funding also helps now that global competition has caused companies to cut back long-term research. "It's accepted that government R&D helps make our country strong," says Haynes. "But let's spend the money on programs that have more direct benefit to industry."
Walker's critics also point to exceptions to his opposition to government funding for commercial technologies. He is a big fan of Pennsylvania's $25 million Ben Franklin program, a state-corporate partnership that funds technology research, which K. Jack Yost, who oversees a Franklin center calls "an amalgam of TRP and ATP." Walker's response? With state-run efforts, he says, "you wouldn't get the industrial policy" since the programs respond to local needs.
FUEL FRACAS. In addition, opponents charge, Walker has no compunction about throwing taxpayers' money at areas of research he favors, such as hydrogen. Walker's bill would pump millions into research and development for everything from new ways of making hydrogen to hydrogen-powered cars and planes. "He is moving ahead full steam with industry," observes Brown. "It is a contradiction, but don't point that out."
Not at all, retorts Walker. "Hydrogen isn't a technology, it's a vast field of study," he says. And as a clean fuel, it "has the potential to reduce the regulatory burden." Still, even some Republicans recognize that there's no quick, easy path to a hydrogen economy. "Hydrogen has a lot of problems," says Representative Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), vice-chairman of the science committee.
The bigger issue, however, is the overall policy direction. Under Clinton, the government has doled out money to companies to help develop tomorrow's technologies. Walker is sure there's a better way. "Small entrepreneurial firms on the leading edge feel that changes in capital-gains treatment are vastly more important than any government programs," he says.
Walker is also exploring the idea of killing programs such as ATP and using that money to give companies an expanded R&D tax credit. It would cover their own research and also facilities and research they fund at universities. But with the GOP so concerned with balancing the budget, Congress isn't likely to adopt his approach anytime soon.
Yet Walker is unfazed. "There's a calmness that comes from knowing you have the votes," he says. With his new position--and the GOP majority in Congress-- he can have a profound impact on Washington's science and technology policy.
THE WALKER AGENDA
The Republican victory has transformed Representative Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) from "gadfly Bob" to Congress' statesman of science. Here's what he wants
Focus government spending on
basic research, ending federal efforts to develop specific commercially important technologies
Stimulate industrial R&D through tax policies
Base regulations on more rigorous risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses, preventing agencies from issuing onerous rules
Redirect energy research to encourage hydrogen technology
Encourage companies to explore more commercial uses of space
Explore whether research on global warming may be biased toward proving that warming is occurring