Skip to content

No Kidding: Science Offers a Bipartisan Path | Commentary

In December, just before House members left this town for their hometown holiday fetes, Speaker John A. Boehner lost his cool. He vented his exasperation with outside conservative agitators who were opposing the Ryan-Murray budget deal even before there was a deal. Noting they were the same fomenters of the October government shutdown who had later admitted they had no hope of winning, Boehner punctuated his disdain with a vituperative bellow: “Are you kidding me?!”

But the speaker could just as easily have been expressing the disgust of the entire science and technology community, for whom consistency of purpose and policy are at the heart of discovery and innovation. For the better part of two years, America’s vaunted research enterprise — which is rapidly becoming less and less vaunted thanks to Washington gridlock — has been suffering from a continued squeeze on federal discretionary budgets, restrictions on new projects imposed by the rules of continuing resolutions and general lack of attention to the nitty-gritty essentials of successful science programs.

It’s probably premature to presume the Ryan-Murray budget compromise has ushered in a new era of bipartisanship, but if Democrats and Republicans are even mildly interested in finding common ground, they should look to science and technology issues for the opportunity. The first session of the 113th Congress provides one good example.

By all measures, that session was the most unproductive in half a century. But until the small bipartisan budget deal temporarily overcame congressional smallness, the most significant legislation to clear both houses, according to Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., was the helium reserve bill. As the majority whip put it several weeks before the Senate finally wheezed its last breath of 2013, that bill was “really the centerpiece of what we’ve done.”

I know you’re probably thinking Durbin was using a small bill about party balloons to hammer home just how small Congress had become. But you’d be wrong. Helium, you see, is critical to high-tech industry, MRI facilities, NASA and a swath of research at the cutting edge of discovery and innovation.

Had Congress not acted before the beginning of October, about half the U.S. supply of helium would have disappeared from the market. Medical diagnostics, semiconductor manufacturing, space launches and research at America’s premier universities would all have felt the pain.

As noncontroversial as the legislation was, the House and Senate still managed to turn it into a nail-biter, coming to agreement only days before the deadline. But lawmakers got the job done — and in truly bipartisan fashion. The final bill cleared the Senate 97-2 on Sept. 19, and less than a week later, on Sept. 25, it received the blessing of the House without dissension.

So as lawmakers look ahead to their work in 2014, here are a few science and technology issues they ought to be able to embrace with a bipartisanship spirit: creating programming flexibility for science agencies; reducing administrative burdens on scientists and agency managers; enabling best practices for international mega-science projects; and establishing a science visa matched to the flattened world in which we live. Let’s take them one by one.

For two years, science agencies have been forced by continuing resolutions to wear a budget straitjacket that prohibited them from starting new projects or programs and terminating outdated ones. Congress should give program administrators the flexibility they need to keep America’s research enterprise humming at the competitive edge.

Under the stress of budgetary belt-tightening, research scientists and agency managers have also been forced to spend more time and effort on proposal writing and processing and less on the conduct and outcomes of research. Although transparency and accountability are essential elements of good government, Congress should take steps to refocus federal science programs on the science they support by reducing administrative burdens that are threatening to choke the enterprise.

Finally, Congress should take steps to recognize the international nature of research by requiring federal agencies to develop policies and procedures that build on the success of projects such as the Large Hadron Collider collaboration at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, that led to the blockbuster Higgs boson discovery; and by creating a new visa category that will allow scientific collaborators to travel freely between their home countries and the United States during the many years that 21st century projects often require.

Could Congress enact such legislation? Are you kidding me?! Of course!

Michael S. Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.