By Janet Raloff, Science News
The November 2, mid-term election results are in and pundits are billing it as a historic turnabout. Republicans appear to have picked up at least 60 House seats, which give them the majority—and committee chairmanships. Democrats retained control of the Senate, but just barely. With a divided Congress, passing legislation—never an easy task—risks becoming harder still. And with fiscal austerity having been a leading campaign issue for the newbies, R&D is unlikely to see a major boost in federal funding during the next two years.
In fact, cuts could become the order of the day, some R&D budget analysts suspect. But even those who closely follow micro-politics on Capitol Hill do not yet have much that's solid to go on.
Explains Patrick Clemins, who directs the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in this election cycle "science wasn't a big platform issue for either party."
One of the more telling documents about what may be proposed by the new House majority is "A Pledge to America;" the Republicans issued this, their proposed governing playbook, in September.
Among other things, it vowed, "We will put government on a path to a balanced budget and pay down the debt." And they would do it through a host of measures—such as: immediately cancelling unspent stimulus funds; reducing federal spending to pre-stimulus, prebailout levels; and establishing "a hard cap on new discretionary spending." Science and technology funding fits, by the way, almost exclusively into this discretionary category.
Based on the Pledge alone, it's hard to know exactly whether R&D would be slated for a paring. Clemins notes that the term R&D doesn't even show up in the Pledge. That could be because science policy is low on (if not off of) the Republican radar screen. But if federally funded research takes the back-to-2008, pre-stimulus hit that the Pledge calls for, that might represent a cut of roughly $8 billion (bringing it down to around $140 billion), he calculates.
Then again, even Republicans recognize that science and engineering are pivotal to U.S. industry and economic competitiveness. As such, many research budgets may win some type of protected status—even from Republican freshmen that were swept into office on a platform of belt-tightening and moves to encourage job growth.
The Pledge did promise to "fully fund missile defense" and to "fight to increase access to domestic energy sources [i.e. coal, gas and offshore oil] and oppose attempts to impose a national 'cap and trade' [carbon-dioxide] energy tax."
Climate issues could feel the heat
Actually, energy and climate are two research-related areas where incoming lawmakers have not been loathe to express opinion.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a climate and energy advocacy group based just outside Boston, points out that several House members "who are poised to take over committee chairmanships have said they would like to hold hearings to attack climate science and climate scientists." In a post-election backgrounder, UCS lays out its argument for why there's reason for science-literate citizens to be concerned about some of the incoming class as well as of veteran lawmakers who are expected to assume chairmanship of influential committees.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, which bills itself as an organization of progressive nonpartisan policy analysis, has developed a "Wonk Room" on its website where it has synopsized sound bytes from 15 top House races where climate has been an issue. (As of this posting, 13 of these races had been won by Republicans or were leaning in that direction). Hyperlinks from the provocative quotes take readers to the texts or videos from which they were excerpted.
"Republicans in these races not only stand against comprehensive climate policy, like nearly all the rest of their party," maintains Wonk Room climate editor, Brad Johnson, "they proudly proclaim that the overwhelming evidence of the threat of greenhouse gas pollution is a 'hoax,' a 'religion,' and 'crap.'"