"What do the U.S. mid-term elections mean for science?"

Shortly after the election the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held a discussion about how the results would likely affect science policy. The recording is available to AAAS members here and I just got around to watching it this last weekend. The main ideas seemed to be to expect closer oversight by committees (especially where related to politically sensitive topics) and that science won’t be spared from funding cuts given the focus on budget issues. A more detailed summary follows.

First, the representation of science in congress is going to be undergoing some major changes due to retirement and election losses. The few members of congress with a formal science background will be decreasing with Washington’s Brian Baird (with a PhD in psychology) and physicist Vern Ehlers retiring, along the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee. Another physicist, Bill Foster from Illinois, and a member of the Science and Technology committee, Bob Inglis, both failed to be reelected.

The likely new chair of the house committee, Ralph Hall of Texas, has promised “strong oversight over the administration in key areas including climate change, scientific integrity, energy research and development, cybersecurity and science education”. Other Republicans that have been critical of science issues are Joe Barton and Darrell Issa, who both would be expected to use their new power to investigate areas they are concerned about.

Not too surprising there was a lot of focus in the discussion on the budget and funding issues. One of the panelists pointed out that during the campaign season Republicans had suggested total budget cuts to levels of 2008; however since the election proposals have not been so severe. He suggested a more likely guide of how funding will look is the pre-report from the Deficit Commision (the final report is due out shortly after I’m writing this). The pre-report suggested freezing the R&D budget at 2010 levels, with cuts to defense R&D, fossil fuel research, the Smithsonian and subsidies to develop commercial space flight.

Science that would be likely to fare better is in areas that can find bipartisan support; examples given were security, biomedical research, and things that can be tied to job creation or economic growth. Given a focus economic impact it may be expected that basic research may take a hit compared more applied fields, however the panel pointed out that congress members may see the more applied fields as better supported by the private sector, while basic research is where public funding in needed. One area that may be complicated is energy research, which both parties see as a priority, but with different emphasis. Democrats tend to be focused on developing cleaner sources of energy, while Republicans are more interested in the security that comes with domestic energy production. Where these two goals overlap research will likely be supported, but conflict will likely arise where they are opposed.

There was also a fair bit of discussion on different issues of biomedical research, since this is a large part of federal science funding. As mentioned already, the bipartisan support of this area will tend to insulate it from major cuts, though some specific types of research are likely to draw conflict. The ongoing court case involving stem cell research funding will be one area that will draw attention. While bills were introduced to try and resolve the uncertainty in federal law, since the appeals court stayed the injunction preventing ongoing research many members of Congress seem to prefer to let the courts decide before acting. My personal opinion is that what ever the result of the final decision there will be serious attempts to pass a law to counter it, and I’m can see Congress voting either direction. However the panelist pointed out there is support for stem cell research from both parties.

According to one panelist, one other area of health research that may become controversial which I hadn’t heard much about relates to part of the healthcare reform bill. This created an institute to fund comparative effectiveness research to identify which forms of treatment are most likely to be most beneficial. However it has drawn criticism as leading to “rationing” if it people are prevented from choosing other forms of treatment. On the other hand, this type of research seems to be fairly well supported from what little I’ve looked into so far. I have a feeling this is the kind of thing that how the question is asked can swing support in either direction.

I want to finish up with the the answer to the panel being asked what researchers can do to try and influence policy in Washington. They said the best thing that can be done is to get to know representatives in Congress, so the science isn’t just some abstract topic, but has a face attached to it. They specifically suggested getting in touch with universities’ government relations offices for specific advice as well as pointing to a book put published by the AAAS called “Working with Congress”.

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