U.S. Science Policy Bent But Not Broken

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The United States must commit to "stable and substantial" funding for basic research if the country is to prosper in a post-Cold War world. That's the main conclusion of a much-anticipated report released yesterday by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and members of the Science Committee. But critics say the study's three dozen specific recommendations--which cover everything from creating guidelines for U.S. involvement in international research projects to educating young scientists--don't go far enough.

Last February, Gingrich asked Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), a member of the Science Committee and the first research physicist elected to Congress, to take a fresh look at U.S. science policy. Ehlers' charge was to write a sequel to Science: The Endless Frontier, the classic 1945 report by engineer Vannevar Bush that has guided U.S. science policy for decades.

The new report, the product of a year of hearings and comments from more than 350 scientists, advocates that U.S. science policy undergo "not a major overhaul, but rather a fine-tuning and rejuvenation." It calls for stabilizing overall federal funding for science, which has declined in recent years, and doing more to encourage "risky science" that the report says is squelched by the current grant-making system. Finally, it calls for better science and math education at all levels, from kindergarten to universities. "The message of this report is that, while not exactly broke, America's science policy is nonetheless in need of some important maintenance," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-OH), chairman of the House Science Committee.

But at least one key Democratic congressman isn't pleased. "I cannot endorse the report as written because it fails to take on some of the issues I think are most important to the future health of the scientific enterprise," says Rep. George Brown (D-CA), the panel's ranking Democrat. Brown charges the report is "silent" on the need to support engineering and the social sciences and pays too little attention to ensuring that poor Americans benefit from research advances.