R&D: Is Congress Choking Off The Fuel Of The New Economy?

On Sept. 22, scores of scientists, students, and Chamber of Commerce reps from around the country will descend on Capitol Hill. Their message: Boost the federal research budget that fuels development of everything from a better Internet to new vaccines. Without research and development spending, they will argue, thriving politicians wouldn't have a budget surplus to fight over.

"We've demonstrated that our research created the New Economy. Now, we're concerned that we are being trampled on as reward for creating the economy that made the surplus possible," says an angry science-policy wonk.

But the R&D brigade is having a hard time geTting lawmakers' attention. "This year's federal budget for science is a disaster," says Yale University physicist D. Allan Bromley, former science adviser to President George Bush. "Congress has lost sight of the critical role science plays."

"LESSER LIVES." Indeed, the numbers are grim. NASA's budget is down by $1 billion, threatening some 30 space missions. The National Science Foundation, which expected a 7% hike, is flat. So far, the House has cut Clinton's nondefense R&D request by $1.8 billion, or about 10%. "If such cuts are allowed to stand, we will all be leading lesser lives in a lesser land," says White House science adviser Neal F. Lane.

In the usual Washington game, threatened cuts for science disappear in last-minute dealmaking. Last year, for example, Congress gave the National Institutes of Health a huge 15% increase as part of an overall boost for science. But even cynical Beltway hands say this year is different.

For one thing, the budget caps in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act really smart for the first time, leaving little money for hikes in discretionary programs. In fact, R&D may be just one of the funding victims as Republicans and Democrats argue over the surplus and tax cuts, all the while itching for the other side to bust the caps.

On Sept. 1, White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta weighed in, accusing the GOP of shortchanging the future by choosing tax cuts over R&D spending. "This is the wrong direction for our country," he said.

But the science community resents efforts to drag it into a political face-off. Instead, scientists hope to show that there is widespread voter support for research funding. Biomedical-research lobbying group Research!America has been polling voters in states with early Presidential contests, such as Iowa and New Hampshire. "If we hand the American people a tax cut, we'll give them an empty envelope when it comes to biomedical research," says Research! Vice-President Ray Merenstein. "That's not the envelope they want."

On Aug 30, Merenstein visited Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). The good news, Merenstein says, is that Hastert understands the importance of research. The bad news is that he still sees tax cuts as a far higher priority.

The way out of this mess? Find more money. "It's obvious to me that we're going to have to go through a bipartisan effort to raise the caps," says Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). But while Domenici insists that research spending would be favored, others aren't so sanguine. Busting the budget caps "would bring an Oklahoma land grab--and the science community doesn't have sharp elbows," says one top Senate aide.

In the end, biomedical research may emerge healthy. But there is a real possibility that other R&D areas may not get the funding levels that both scientists and economists believe are necessary to keep the New Economy cooking.

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