Getting Serious about Science-Policy Reform

By Boucher, Rick | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Getting Serious about Science-Policy Reform

Boucher, Rick, Issues in Science and Technology

Ever since Congress voted to kill the superconducting super collider (SSC) last fall, there have been plenty of postmortems on what surely ranks as one of the saddest chapters in the history of U.S. science. For some of my colleagues, the purpose of the SSC was never clearly defined or articulated. Others considered it an extravagance in a society beset with problems ranging from acquired immune deficiency syndrome to pollution. For still others, it was terribly administered and an example of pork-barrel politics at its worst. For some, it was all of these things.

As an SSC supporter, I understood these concerns and was sympathetic to some of them. But the SSC's problems tell only part of the story of how the federal government came to spend $1.6 billion with little to show but a partially dug tunnel in Texas.

The real lesson to be learned from the SSC's demise is that we as a nation need to change fundamentally the way we plan, debate, and implement science and technology policy.

For the research community, this is hardly startling news. Many calls for change have been made. More than a year ago, the Subcommittee on Science of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology launched a sweeping review of science policy, prompted in large measure by Rep. George E. Brown, Jr., (D-Calif.), the full committee chairman, whose 1992 report on the health of research challenged long-settled principles and ways of doing business. Others, including the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Clinton administration have all concluded that in areas ranging from priority-setting to the formulation of federal research and development budgets, there is an urgent need to restructure and renew science policy.

The advocates of change share the belief that the science policy framework built by Vannevar Bush some four decades ago is no longer adequate for a society grappling with massive budget deficits, intense global economic competition, and other problems. Since the end of the Cold War (around which much of the rationale for public research funding was centered), cynicism about the research enterprise has been growing. Seen in this light, the SSC fiasco is but a costly symptom of a broader and more fundamental problem in defining goals and justifications for federal R&D policy.

I believe that an important step in redirecting federal science policy was taken on Nov. 9, 1993, when I introduced along with Chairman Brown and Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) the Science Policy Renewal Act of 1993 (H.R. 3476). This legislation would implement the broad consensus that has arisen in the research community for priority-setting in science and greater ties between science and broader social concerns. The bill streamlines the science and technology policymaking apparatus in the Executive Office of the President, overhauls the way R&D budgets are formulated in the executive branch, and gives Congress new tools with which to exercise effective oversight of science policy. A bigger role for the science adviser

The most important of the bill's reforms is the direct role it confers on the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)--who is also the president's science adviser--in developing agency R&D budgets. Under the 1976 law that established OSTP, the director has only a very general role in assisting the president and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). With no line authority or control over budgets, the director must rely on the powers of persuasion in convincing agencies to shape or modify their R&D budgets in desired directions.

In a government where control of the purse strings equals power, this arrangement is too informal. It relies too much on the good faith of OMB to ensure that scientific concerns are brought to bear in the president's budget. The government is also potentially deprived of an effective agent to coordinate and to make tough choices about a $75 billion research budget spread across more than 20 departments and agencies. …

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