Published online 3 January 2011 | Nature 469, 10-11 (2011) | doi:10.1038/469010a

News: Q&A

Going out on a high

Bart Gordon reflects on his career at the sharp end of science politics.

C. Owen/Nature

After 25 years in the US Congress, Bart Gordon (Democrat, Tennessee), the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, officially stepped down on 3 January. An ardent champion of science, he has served on the committee throughout most of his time in Washington DC and has led it since 2007. In 2007 he was instrumental in creating the America COMPETES Act, which aims to double funding for basic research in the physical sciences over a ten-year period and improve science education in US schools. One of his final acts as chairman was successfully shepherding a renewal of COMPETES through a politically polarized Congress. The act will be signed into law by President Barack Obama this week.

Why is America COMPETES so important to you?

The United States needs to be able to increase its investment in research. Research leads to innovation; innovation leads to jobs; jobs leads to more taxes, which then pay for more research. I have a 9-year-old daughter and I am concerned about her future and our country's future. There are approximately 7 billion people in the world, and half of those who are working make less than $2 a day. So unless we continue to innovate and unless we have a skilled workforce, we are going to see our standard of living decrease.

How will it be possible to invest more in research when many are calling for cutbacks?

It's going to be a challenge. We're seeing a little increase in the public-sector research dollars and we're seeing a decrease in private-sector funding. In the rest of the world many are trying to do both: their private and public sectors are investing more. We're going to have to rally the private sector, the universities and everyone who cares about this to show its importance.

Is science playing a greater or lesser part in US policy-making?

I think President Obama has put a strong marker down that he wants to see science take a greater role. He has brought together an unheard of number of high-calibre scientists [in his administration] that I think are helping to do this. The thing that I've found is that whether it's John Holdren [director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy] or [energy secretary] Steve Chu, you have these top-notch scientists in their own fields that, prior to coming to Washington, have come to know each other, and so it really gives them the ability to talk outside their bureaucratic silos.

Are there examples of where science can lead to better policy?

I think the business community is very interested in seeing science play a larger part in policy-making. Take nanotechnology and synthetic biology, for example. They are going to be big growth industries for our future. But there are health and safety concerns — and there can either be a perceived risk to health and safety or an actual one. So it is important that we get an early start on transparent research in health and safety in these two areas so that the public can feel comfortable that if there is a problem, then we're getting it off the shelf, and if there isn't, then there's a body of evidence that they can see.

Are you disappointed that Congress has not passed a climate bill?

I voted for the House bill but I'm less interested in a particular bill than I am in trying to deal with the problem. I'm very concerned that we're outliers compared with the rest of the world. In term of our international stature, that really has hurt, particularly in Europe.

You are known for reaching out to European legislators. What has been your aim in doing so?

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Between the European Parliament and the US Congress, you have two legislative bodies that represent 800 million people and over half the world's GDP. The European Union and the United States also share similar cultures and wage scales. I really think it's important for us to be collaborating, intellectually and financially, in bringing more symmetry to standards and regulations and reducing barriers between our two regions. We have a common interest, for example, in clean energy. Some of those areas, such as next-generation nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and fusion are hugely expensive. I think those are areas where we can collaborate.

Do you have any advice for your successor as chairman?

Try to maintain the civility that allowed us to work together. I tried to bring the Republicans in early to make them a part of the process. It made our bills better, and because of that we were able to go to the floor with a unified effort and pass legislation in a bipartisan manner — and if you want legislation to continue here, it needs to be bipartisan. 

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