A plan to reform appropriations committees in the US Congress — and create one devoted to science — is unlikely to come to fruition. Which is just as well.
The research and development programmes of the US federal government are scattered across departments and congressional committees in a rather haphazard way. For decades, tidy minds have suggested improvements. But these have been ignored — and US science has gone from strength to strength.
The latest proposal comes from Tom DeLay (Republican, Texas), the majority leader in the House of Representatives, who wants to streamline the appropriations subcommittees that set budgets. His plan reportedly includes a subcommittee for science that would take under its wing NASA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the research programmes in the Department of Energy (DOE).
At present, the science agencies are scattered across different appropriations subcommittees, so NASA competes directly with the veterans affairs and housing departments for money. The NIH competes with agencies such as the education department. This may lack logic, but it has served science well. The scientific agencies have each found champions in both houses of Congress who know what they do and support their work. The current system also means that the major science agencies don't compete directly with each other for money — decisions about how to fund space science are made separately from choices on biomedical research. The system has put a brake on the sudden diversion of money into spheres that are fashionable or politically correct, and has helped to build the strongest and most diverse research enterprise the world has ever seen.
Putting everything in the hands of a single appropriations subcommittee could unravel all that. Agencies would compete bitterly for funds and the wrong priorities might take hold. The dynamics of congressional committees would suggest that members with large NASA or DOE facilities in their districts would come to dominate the subcommittee, draining clout from agencies such as the NIH and the NSF, which give small grants to researchers all over the country.
Maybe that's part of what DeLay is seeking. He recently intervened to restore the NASA budget — partly in defence of President Bush's human spaceflight plans, and partly to flex some muscle on behalf of the Johnson Space Center in his own district. He may believe that a research subcommittee would better serve NASA's interests. But the broader intention of his plan, according to Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, which broke the news on 6 December, is to realign the budget system to help the Republican leadership to shrink the federal government.
But even the man known in Washington as ‘The Hammer’ will have his hands full reforming such an entrenched system. The House will be reluctant to break up its current structure, and the Senate is expected to be hostile. No one expects any action soon, but that could change if the Republicans strengthen their grip on the Senate in 2006.
This inertia is probably good news for science, and for science lobbyists, who complain about the current system but know how to work it. As one biomedical lobbyist said last week: “I would rather fight nine small battles for adequate funding for research than have one large budget battle, in which a gain for one area of science came at the expense of all the rest.” Excessive concentration of power over distributing research funds would lead to more political interference, more funding instability, and less diversity in US research.
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Strength through diversity. Nature 432, 785 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/432785a