On March 5th, Dr Ryan Davison of the American Chemical Society (ACS) came to speak about how science-related political policy is made. Davison is the Advocacy Manager in the ACS’s Office of Public Affairs, which means it is his job to educate legislators about the issues pertinent to science and engineering. The ACS is the largest scientific society in the world, so it often serves as the voice of the scientist on Capitol Hill.
Davison began with a quick overview of how the legislative branch of the government works. The Senate – controlled, at the moment, by the Democrats – places each state on equal footing, regardless of population. Every state has two senators, who serve for terms of six years. The House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republicans at the moment, has a fixed limit of members, which are then broken up by relative population proportions. In other words, both Wyoming and California have two senators each, but California holds 53 seats in the House, while Wyoming holds only one. Representatives have two-year terms; four seats are currently open due to deaths or resignations. In order for a law to be passed, both the House and the Senate must agree to it; when the two bodies of legislation are controlled by opposing parties, very little lawmaking gets done. Last year only thirty laws were passed, including a number of symbolic laws – that is, laws without actual meaningful effects, such as the naming of a public building.
The reason for this significant lack of productivity is because, while the two parties have the same goals, they approach those goals differently. To illustrate this, Davison used the recent (and continuing) budget crisis. Each day, he explained, $2.7 billion are added to the national debt. Unemployment is at 6.6%, having peaked in 2010 at 10%. In the past, the “debt ceiling” would be raised every time it was reached, without fanfare. This time, however, the parties refused to compromise, leading to an extended shut-down of the government before the passage of the Budget Control Act, which cut $900 billion worth of public spending in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling. The Republicans refused to cut defense spending while the Democrats refused cut domestic spending. This resulted in “sequestration,” the automatic cutting of the budgets of governmental organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Health, both of which lost 5% of their funding. Only the Department of Energy (DOE) did not suffer as a result of the sequestration. The budget cuts mean less grant money, which affects schools like Mines, whose students often depend on grants from the NSF, the US Geological Survey (USGS), and other governmental groups to fund their research. Arguments that the one-time infusion of cash in the 2009 stimulus package offset the damage are faulty; a slow, steady increase in budget over time would have been much better for funding research.
Davison next gave an overview of the committees and legislators most important in deciding science policy. Committees break down the responsibilities of the legislators among smaller groups, each of which is headed by a particular senator or representative. In an effort to increase their powers, the committee chairs will often volunteer to take other topics into their committees which were not originally in their scope, and once the scope is widened, that increased power will never be given up, leading to some odd agglomerations of committee topics. What began as the House Space Committee in the 1950s has now broadened to Science, Space, and Technology, for instance; its current chair, Lamar Smith, was a major sponsor of the notorious censorship law SOPA. Other committees that matter to scientists and engineers include the massive House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, whose chair, a moderate and a 6th generation Rockefeller, is retiring soon.
Both the House and the Senate have an Appropriations committee, the oldest and most powerful of the committees, which controls the destination for all of the government’s money besides defense; the Budget committee then authorizes the range of money that can be “appropriated” for each destination. In this way, the Budget committee can limit funding, but only Appropriations can increase it. The chair of Senate Appropriations, Barbara Mikulski, is also chair of the subcommittee on science. The House Appropriations, too, has a pertinent subcommittee, Commerce, Justice, and Science, headed by Frank Wolf, an NSF-friendly representative who is also retiring soon. Finally, the House Ways and Means Committee, in charge of taxes, Medicare, Social Security, and so on, is about to lose its own moderate chair; Davison asserts that, when this happens, there will be “a bloodbath for his seat”.
At this point Davison changed topics, discussing recent legislation in which the ACS’s lobbying efforts have been important. First, he described an ongoing brouhaha over the 2007 bipartisan America COMPETES Act. This law set high spending limits for the NSF, NASA, NOAA, and the DOE, all important sources of scientific grants. It was reauthorized in 2010, but the spending limits were not reached, minimizing its benefit. When it came up for reauthorization in 2013, at a senate hearing, the president’s advisor on science and technology, John Holdren, said offhand that the NSF peer review process could be improved. The senators latched onto this and questioned the NSF director on grant titles they considered odd or trivial, arguing that such topics were not worth funding. The “High Quality Science Act” was proposed, which would have specified that NSF funding could only go to “groundbreaking, important, original” research. Fortunately, these vague, absurd proscriptions were not made into law, though the House equivalent of COMPETES, the FIRST Act, will likely try to alter the NSF peer review process.
Another scandal with potentially deleterious effects on science occurred when the General Services Administration spent $825,000 on a Las Vegas conference. This led to major cuts in government employee travel allocations, including travel to scientific meetings, with absurd limitations totally unrealistic for groups like the USGS. The congressman who started the so-called Government Spending Accountability Act – which contained these limitations – was poorly-liked, fortunately, and after Rush Holt, one of only two PhDs in congress (who is also retiring soon) and a physicist, explained how the law would curtail scientific collaboration, the act was killed. The idea continued to float around, however. Senator Tom Coburn tried to sneak in a legal amendment limiting meeting attendance to no more than 25 people from each governmental agency; this was passed, but only for international meetings, and when Coburn leaves the Senate, the issue will leave with him.
Finally, Davison discussed one of the few laws passed in 2013. The Federal Helium Reserve, which holds a third of the world’s helium supply, was set to be shut down, which would have resulted in skyrocketing costs for the gas. After lobbying from the ACS, the Reserve’s operations were extended for another year. Similarly, the Critical Minerals Policy Act, a bipartisan law likely to pass in 2014, will provide funding to identify, catalog, and research the recycling and extraction of rare earths and other scarce minerals vital to technology.
Davison finished by saying that the ACS accepts anyone as a member, regardless of their field or career, and provides fellowships, undergraduate internships, and visits to Congress, among other things. Find out more at their website, www.acs.org.