American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program SPECIAL UPDATE


House Science Policy Study Released

(9-29-98; Revised 12-9-98)


This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies

IN A NUTSHELL: Last week, the House Science Committee unveiled Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy, a report developed by committee vice-chair Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) at the request of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). The report addresses the current state of the Nation's science and technology enterprise and outlines a framework for an updated national science policy in the post-Cold War era. It concludes that the overall health of science and engineering in this country is good but makes a number of recommendations for components that need strengthening. The 74-page report is available on the web at: http://www.house.gov/science/science_policy_study.htm

The House of Representatives passed House Resolution 578, stating that the report "should serve as a framework for future deliberations on congressional science policy and funding." The Science Committee is seeking input on what to do next as well as feedback on the report itself. Background information is available on the http://www.agiweb.org/legis105/ehlers.html.

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At a press conference last week in a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was presented with a long-awaited report, which was immediately posted on the House web site. But unlike a certain other report, this one is not likely to overload the congressional internet servers. It's subject is science policy, specifically the current state of the Nation's science and technology enterprise and a framework for an updated national science policy in the post-Cold War era. Entitled Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy, the report is being presented as a descendant of the 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, Science: The Endless Frontier, which in many ways defined the Nation's science policy over the past half-century.

The study was initiated in February 1997 in a charge by Speaker Gingrich to the House Science Committee, and specifically to committee vice-chair Vern Ehlers (R-MI), a Berkeley-trained physicist and former college professor. The study's first event did not take place until that October, however, due to the unwillingness of the House Rules Committee to authorize additional staff for the project. All sides agree that the study was developed with considerable outside input, especially from the scientific community itself. Seven hearings were held as well as several roundtable discussions. In addition, Ehlers met with many scientists and engineers, including several groups of geoscientists. A number of geoscience societies and individual geoscientists responded to calls by AGI and others to provide input to Ehlers (a Comment by whom appeared in the April 1998 issue of Geotimes).

The 74-page report is a consensus document that does not go into much specific detail nor does it seek to prioritize among disciplines. It does not call for a major overhaul in the conduct of research but does suggest three basic components that require strengthening: fundamental research, applying discoveries to society's needs, and education. In particular, it underscores the unique governmental role in supporting fundamental research that cannot be supported in the marketplace. In doing so, however, the study cautions against "a widening gap between federally-funded basic research and industry-funded applied research and development," referred to as the "Valley of Death." In addition to the three traditional rationales for government funding of research outlined in the Bush report -- national security, health, and the economy -- the study adds a fourth: helping society make good decisions, particularly environmental. The study also emphasizes the need for better communication between scientists and the public, arguing that "re-forging...ties with the American people is perhaps the single most important challenge facing science and engineering in the near future." Key findings and recommendations of the study are included at the end of this special update.

Reaction from the scientific and engineering community has been generally positive. In addition, the bipartisan Senate Science and Technology Caucus has endorsed the report. House Science Committee ranking Democrat George Brown (D-CA), however, has yet to endorse it, "because it fails to take on some of the issues I think are most important to the future health of the scientific enterprise." Report supporters emphasize its consensus nature, which precludes bold steps, and argue that it should be viewed as the first steps down the right path.

The report now goes before the full House as a resolution. Both Democrats and Republicans predict that it will pass. The resolution would then be sent to the Senate for approval. Although non-binding, passage of such a resolution would raise the study's profile and set the stage for using its recommendations as an agenda for the House Science Committee in the upcoming 106th Congress. Among the next steps discussed at the press conference is a joint study to follow up on the education recommendations in this study. Such a study would be a joint effort between the House Science Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

In response to a question, Rep. Ehlers indicated that he would welcome letters from scientific societies expressing their views on the final report. In addition, staff for the Science Committee indicated that they welcomed input on how to proceed to "Phase II", as the committee responds to the Speaker's charge to "develop a long-range science and technology policy for the Nation." The Science Policy Study web site includes information on how to contact the committee as well as a copy of the full report, statements made at the press conference, and a link to Rep. Brown's alternative views: http://www.house.gov/science/science_policy_study.htm.


Key Findings and Recommendations from
Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy

Ensuring the Flow of New Ideas

To maintain our Nation's economic strength and our international competitiveness, Congress should make stable and substantial federal funding for fundamental scientific research a high priority. Because the federal government has an irreplaceable role in funding basic research, priority for federal research funding should be placed on fundamental research.

In order to facilitate basic research, the federal government should continue to administer research grants that include funds for offsetting indirect costs and use a peer-reviewed selection process, to individual investigators in universities, non-profit research centers, hospitals, and some industrial laboratories for support of investigator-driven, non-commercial research. Other federal agencies should consider increasing the use of this method of supporting and encouraging research.

Because innovation and creativity are essential to basic research and must be encouraged, the federal government should consider allocating a certain fraction of grant monies specifically for the pursuit of particularly creative, groundbreaking research. This will require development of a system for reviewing these grant applications that depends on peer-review but takes into account the speculative nature of the proposed research.

It is important that the federal government fund basic research in a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, including the physical, computational, life and social sciences, as well as mathematics and engineering, and resist overemphasis in a particular area or areas relative to others. In addition, while excellence within a particular discipline must continue to be encouraged and supported, changes in the peer review process that make it easier to obtain funding for inter-disciplinary research should be developed.

In general, research and development in federal agencies, departments, and the national laboratories should be highly relevant to, and tightly focused on, agency or department missions, and must focus on essential programs that are well-managed, long-term, high-risk, non-commercial, and have great potential for scientific discovery. Furthermore, once this focus is established the emphasis must be placed on performance of the research function, with a conscious effort to minimize administrative and auditing expenditures.

A national laboratory not involved in defense missions should be identified for participation in a corporatization demonstration program.

Government agencies or laboratories, especially those pursuing mission-oriented research, should employ the Results Act as a tool for setting priorities and getting the most out of their research programs. Scientific research programs not meeting these goals should be eliminated or decreased in order to enable new initiatives in promising areas of scientific research. In implementing the Results Act, government bodies that distribute investigator-driven grants such as NIH, NSF and the Department of Defense, should measure success in the aggregate and not on the basis of individual research projects, perhaps by using a "research portfolio" concept.

Research partnerships among various entities in the research enterprise can be a valuable means of leveraging the federal government's research investment.

In general, partnerships involving U.S. participation in international science and space exploration should be pursued only when they serve to further science and are in the national interest. The U.S. should enter into such co-operative arrangements with foreign governments only when entry reduces the cost of undertaking research projects and missions the U.S. government would likely pursue unilaterally, enables the U.S. to pursue research projects and missions that it would not pursue otherwise, or enhances the capability of the U.S. to use and develop scientific research for the benefit of its citizens. A clear set of criteria for U.S. entry into, participation in, and exit from an international scientific project should be developed. Both successful and less successful ventures should be analyzed to develop these criteria. The importance of stable funding for large-scale, well-defined international science projects should be stressed in the budget resolution and appropriations processes.

The State Department should strengthen its contingent of scientific advisors-particularly within its Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, the focal point for foreign policy formulation and implementation in global environment, science, and technology issues-perhaps drawing on expertise in other departments or agencies to act as liaisons in the pursuit of international scientific projects.

The Private Sector's Role in the Scientific Enterprise

[T]he limited resources of the federal government, and thus the need for the government to focus on its irreplaceable role in funding basic research, has led to a widening gap between federally-funded basic research and industry-funded applied research and development. This gap, which has always existed but is becoming wider and deeper, has been referred to as the "Valley of Death."

The private sector must recognize and take responsibility for the performance of research. The federal government may consider supplementary funding for private-sector research projects when the research is in the national interest. Congress should develop clear criteria, including peer review, to be used in determining which projects warrant federal funding.

Private sector capitalization of new technology-based companies should be encouraged through friendly tax and regulatory policies. Needlessly onerous regulations that inhibit corporate research should be identified and either mitigated or eliminated. Extend the R&D tax credit on a permanent basis to provide a stable planning foundation for private firms and, in general, seek to implement tax policies that encourage capital formation.

As the principal beneficiaries of technology-based industry within their borders, the States should be encouraged to play a greater role in facilitating the development of these industries, both through their support of colleges and research universities and by facilitating interactions between these institutions and the private sector.

Major research universities should cultivate working relationships with less well-established research universities and technical colleges in research areas where there is mutual interest and expertise and consider submitting, where appropriate, joint grant proposals. Less research-intensive colleges and universities should consider developing scientific or technological expertise in niche areas that complement local expertise and contribute to local economic development strategies.

To capitalize on and exploit the advances made in government laboratories and universities, private sector organizations must remain informed of developments in the realm of federally funded research....The widespread availability and use of the Internet provides a means to address this issue. Internet-accessible, searchable databases that contain information about federally-funded research could allow those in the private sector to keep abreast of federally funded scientific developments in a relatively time and cost-effective manner....Consider expanding databases such as PubMed and RaDiUS to make them both comprehensive and as widely available as possible.

A review of intellectual property issues, both domestic and international, is necessary to ensure that an acceptable balance is struck between stimulating the development of scientific and engineering research into marketable technologies and maintaining the effective dissemination so important to the practice of science and economic development.

Ensuring That Technical Decisions Made by Government Bodies are Founded in Sound Science

To address the relationship between regulations and sound science, at the earliest possible stages of the regulatory process, Congress, the Executive branch, and the technical advisors for each must work together to identify future issues that will require scientific analysis. Sufficient funding for these research agendas must then be provided and should not be overly concentrated in regulatory agencies.

Scientists and engineers should be required to divulge their credentials, provide a resume and indicate their funding sources and other affiliations when offering expert advice to decision-makers.

In all federal government agencies that pursue scientific research, but particularly in those that formulate regulations, standardized peer review procedures should be developed and used.

Decision-makers must recognize that uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the scientific process. Regulatory decisions made in the context of rapidly changing areas of inquiry should be re-evaluated at appropriate times.

Risk analysis must be used in the regulatory decision making process. Comprehensive risk analysis within and among regulatory agencies should be standard practice. Efforts to communicate information about various risks to the public in understandable terms, perhaps by using comparisons that explain risks in the context of other, more recognizable ones, should be undertaken.

Efforts designed to identify highly qualified and impartial scientific experts to provide advice to the courts for scientific and technical decisions must be encouraged.

In those cases where two or more Congressional committees have joint jurisdiction over or significant interest in large, complex technical programs, the affected committees should take steps to better coordinate their efforts. Wherever possible, the affected committees should consider holding joint hearings and perhaps even writing joint authorization bills.

Sustaining the Research Enterprise -- the Importance of Education

Curricula for all elementary and secondary years that are rigorous in content, emphasize the mastery of fundamental scientific and mathematical concepts as well as the modes of scientific inquiry, and encourage the natural curiosity of children by conveying the excitement of science and math must be developed and implemented.

Programs that encourage recruitment of qualified math and science teachers, such as flexible credential programs, must be encouraged. In general, future math and science teachers should be expected to have taken college courses in the type of science or math they teach, and, preferably, to have a minor. Ongoing professional development for existing teachers is also important.

A greater fraction of the federal government's spending on education should be spent on research programs aimed at improving curricula and increasing the effectiveness of science and math teaching.

While continuing to train scientists and engineers of unsurpassed quality, the higher education process should allow for better preparation of students who plan to seek careers outside of academia by increasing flexibility in graduate training programs. Specifically, Ph.D. programs should allow students to pursue coursework and gain relevant experience outside their specific area of research. Changes in the current academic culture, which often appears to undervalue non-research careers by students, must be encouraged to bring about these modifications.

Mechanisms for direct federal funding of post-docs are already relatively common. Expansion of these programs to include greater numbers of graduate students in math, science and engineering should be explored.

More university science programs should institute specially-designed Masters of Science degree programs as an option for allowing graduate study that does not entail the commitment to the Ph.D.

Universities must be encouraged to put controls on the length of time spent in graduate school and post-doctoral study, and to recognize that, especially in a competitive economy, they cannot effectively attract talented young people without providing for adequate compensation and benefits during their training.

Universities should consider offering scientists, as part of their graduate training, the opportunity to take at least one course in journalism or communication. Journalism schools should also encourage journalists to take at least one course in scientific writing.

Scientists and engineers, particularly those with an aptitude for public speaking, should be encouraged to take time away from their research to educate the public about the nature and importance of their work. Those who do so, including tenure-track university researchers, should not be penalized by their employers or peers.

Government agencies have a responsibility to make the results of federally-funded research widely available. Plain English summaries of research describing its results and implications should be prepared and widely distributed, including posting on the Internet.


Source: House Science Committee

Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted September 29, 1998


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