US scientists rally behind funding bill

Sir

Read the Nature editorial, “Think of a number and double it”, and you will conclude that scientists have lost their savvy — or at least their ability to crunch numbers (Nature 393, 1; 1998). The object of your criticism was the National Research Investment Act of 1998, which has drawn 17 bipartisan co-sponsors in the US Senate and represents many of the sentiments of the unified statement on research supported by the leaders of 110 science, engineering and mathematics organizations. Recognizing the extraordinary importance of science and engineering for the future of the nation, the bill would authorize doubling the federal investment in civilian research over a ten-year period.

As supporters of the legislation, we take strong issue with the facts presented in the editorial and with its logic. The bill, known as S1305, was submitted last fall by Senators Phil Gramm (Republican, Texas), Joseph Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut), Peter Domenici (Republican, New Mexico) and Jeff Bingaman (Democrat, New Mexico). It aims to accomplish three goals: to help stanch the research budget haemorrhaging of recent years; to raise the visibility of science and engineering within the Senate; and to put the White House on notice that Congress, too, has a strong and enduring interest in the science and technology issue.

The bill has already achieved a measure of these three goals. Last February, the president delivered a strong budget recommendation on science for fiscal year 1999. In March, the Senate wrote a budget resolution that identifies science as a priority and recently followed that with appropriations allocations that provide opportunities for science account increases. Finally, 17 co-sponsors have joined the bill, and many other senators have become more aware of the nexus between federal research investments and our national prosperity.

The bill has also served as a rallying point for the entire science and engineering community. It has drawn the disparate parts together. And it has made it possible for scientists and engineers around the country to make their case to the public. To date, at least five major newspapers have carried editorials that emphasize the importance of research to the nation's future and to the economic vitality of individual states and localities, all based on the premise of S1305.

To assert, as your editorial does, that S1305 simply carries the message ‘spend’ is to miscast the role of the bill. The legislation follows a time-honoured tradition of sending a message to congressional appropriators that their colleagues want an issue to be taken seriously — in this case research. You seem to have misunderstood how the process works.

Nature's criticism of S1305 also suffers from a serious logical flaw. You assert that the bill's $170 billion ten-year price tag has not been justified. But you also note that the case has been made convincingly for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), two agencies that Congress and the White House strongly support. Yet it is the activities of these two agencies that account for most of the growth.

The strength of American science and engineering lies in the multiplicity of agency support. At a time when science and engineering have become so thoroughly interdependent, maintaining the health of this structure takes on even greater significance. Representative John Porter (Republican, Illinois), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NIH, stated at a hearing on 20 May: “Just as we don't want to set disease against disease, neither do we want to set one science against another⃛. All have to be valued and brought along at a relatively equal pace.” Those are the goals of S1305, with which we concur. We are mystified that you seemed not to share this view.

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Sloan, M., Jaffe, A., Walter, P. et al. US scientists rally behind funding bill. Nature 393, 727 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31568

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