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Shaking Up the Lab Rats

By Eliot Marshall
Jan 1, 1996 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:15 AM


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When the new Republican majority took their seats last January, a shudder rippled through the science establishment, and with good reason. Republicans in the House of Representatives threatened to make sweeping cuts in scientific programs across the board. They even talked about eliminating whole agencies, such as the Department of Energy, home to research on high-energy physics, solar power, and fusion energy, and the Department of Commerce, which finances commercial technology programs, the patent office, and the climate-watching services of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At one extreme, a House leader went so far as to suggest slashing funds for climate research because it had produced such scientific nonsense and unproven . . . liberal claptrap as the global warming hypothesis.

As the months went by and the more moderate Senate demurred, the antiscience revolution lost momentum. In May, House Speaker Newt Gingrich--whose attitude toward science is, in fairness, somewhat complex-- declared that basic science was too important to the nation’s future to fall under the budget-cutting ax. By the fall it was clear that the Senate’s Republican leaders did not want an upheaval in scientific research programs, either--or if they did, they didn’t believe they could muster the two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto. In the end, the tough talk turned out to be just that, and by late autumn few of the original radical proposals were expected to survive the budget battle between Congress and the White House.

Gingrich and his Republican colleagues succeeded, however, in pushing through a broad program of austerity that, though it preserves most of the basic research programs now in place, puts them on a strict diet. As this issue went to press, most basic research institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health, which sponsors biological and medical research, were slated for cost-of-living increases at best, while others, such as the National Science Foundation, were expected to have to make do on slightly less.

The only basic science programs to receive substantial cuts were those having to do with the environment--a mainly Republican bugbear. These include major programs of the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides research important for land-use planning; the National Biological Service, which does research on ecosystem management and endangered species; and the Environmental Protection Agency (see following article). The fate of NOAA, which collects information on the oceans and atmosphere essential for environmental research, was uncertain.

The space program did not fare so well, either. Although Congress shaved only a few hundred million dollars off NASA’s overall budget of $14.2 billion, it preserved the space station--a huge and controversial engineering and construction project. Certainly some members of the scientific community support the project, as do members of Congress who are generally seen as friendly to science. But others fear that the station’s $2.1 billion budget may drain funds away from more scientifically worthy projects for years to come.

NASA will have to make up the shortfall by shelving, or at least postponing, projects that are currently in the planning stage. The biggest victim will probably be a proposed network of Earth-observing satellites known as the Mission to Planet Earth, which NASA had planned to build up rapidly to monitor global environmental changes. Now the pace of the project will be slowed, and research on global warming and other environmental issues may suffer for it. NASA will also be forced to delay-- probably until 2002--its plans to begin building the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, an orbiting telescope with which astronomers hope to see extremely faint objects at the edge of the visible universe.

The Republicans are expected to continue chipping away at spending on science in 1996. If Congress makes good on its resolution to balance the budget, it will have to cut science and technology spending by 33 percent over the next seven years, according to estimates by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Stagnation could be the result, as young scientists find it increasingly difficult to win funding. From their viewpoint, American science could be racing toward the millennium on a diet of cold gruel.

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