In their zeal to zero out the federal deficit, Republican newcomers to Congress have alarmed their own party’s leaders by demanding massive cuts in government spending for science and technology.
“Neanderthals … cannibalism … mindless.” That’s not Democrats bad-mouthing their opponents; it’s senior Republicans, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, protesting the deep reductions in research programs being demanded by GOP freshmen and sophomores.
Academic scientists and leaders of high-tech industries also are in an uproar over the cuts, which they say would reduce federal research and development outlays by one-third, after adjustment for inflation, over the next seven years.
“Never in history have we seen a decline of that level,” said Charles Vest, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “We are in danger of drifting toward mediocrity.”
Supporters of scientific research contend it is the key to America’s economic prosperity and world leadership. But Republican budget-cutters insist that budget deficits, high taxes and government regulations are strangling innovation.
“We want to end these insane deficits that are destroying our ability to compete with the rest of the world,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
The appropriations bills being rushed through the House of Representatives make actual reductions in outlays for research - not just a slowdown in the growth of spending. The Senate is unlikely to restore much, if any, of the cuts.
According to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), federal outlays for civilian research would shrink from $34 billion in 1995 to $28 billion in 2002 under the budget plan approved by the House and Senate last month.
That is the equivalent of $23 billion in constant 1995 dollars, a loss of $11 billion or 33 percent in real purchasing power, the AAAS said.
For example, spending on energy research would decline by 47 percent over the next seven years, on space by 36 percent and on health by 28 percent, the association estimated.
Cuts of such magnitude would have “a staggering impact” on science and technology, the AAAS president, Rita Colwell, told an emergency assembly of leaders of 100 scientific organizations here last month.
Of course, protests about budget cuts are to be expected, especially from beneficiaries of government grants and contracts. Every constituent group in the nation is struggling to save its share of a shrinking federal pie this summer.
More surprising is the reaction of Republican leaders such as Gingrich, a self-described “science nut,” and his close pal, House Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker, R-Pa.
The speaker intervened personally when Rep. Mark Neumann, a freshman Republican from Wisconsin, tried to kill an $800,000 U.S. contribution to an international fund to protect elephants, tigers and rhinoceroses.
“We don’t have to cut mindlessly because we want to get to a balanced budget,” Gingrich argued successfully on the House floor.
Walker, a veteran of 18 years in the House, was angered when Republicans and Democrats joined forces to try to cut several energy projects.
“If you really believe that science has something to do with the nation’s economy of the future, then, by golly, stop voting for (amendments) that are mindless cannibalism of basic research,” Walker fumed.
David Clement, the Science Committee’s chief of staff, explained, “It’s difficult to convince freshmen to vote to support something they can’t see and basically do not understand.”
The United States will spend about $160 billion this year on research and development - $68 billion from the federal government, $84 billion from private industry and the rest from universities and non-profit organizations.
This may sound impressive, but it amounts to only 2.6 percent of the gross domestic product, a smaller share than in Germany or Japan.
Excluding military research, the United States ranks 28th in the world in the proportion of the nation’s wealth devoted to science.