AAAS Forum -- "Unity in Diversity"
Washington, D.C.
June 26, 1995

John H. Gibbons
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology


We are meeting at a historic time for this nation and for the world. As a people, we are now making critical decisions about what this country will be in the 21st century. We are doing no less than deciding our future as a self-governing society.

Do we have the discipline not to empty the treasury and borrow from our descendants for near-term gains, as we did during the spendthrift '80s? Do we have the commitment to invest in the future even as we consume and enjoy the fruits made possible by those who came before us? Do we have the ability to form alliances for the future national interest, and more effectively engage in the coming global economy?

These are not the headlines in the Washington Post or the New York Times. But they are the issues underlying whether we will have health care for all Americans; whether our elderly receive basic social services and dignity in their old age; whether our children receive an adequate education that prepares them for jobs in the future; whether we protect or despoil our environment; whether we mount a strong national defense that keeps our country safe in a time of highly complex conflict.

These were the issues that defined the last Congressional election, and also the previous election that brought President Clinton to the White House. They will continue to be a part of the national dialogue for years to come.

These issues merit and command the attention of the American people; but the noise level is very high. What I fear is that the state of science and technology -- with its long-term payoff -- will be lost in the immediacy of the high-stakes, high- decibel debate.

As the President's science advisor, it has been my job over the last three years to make sure that the nation maintains its commitment to long-term investments in science and technology, even as we work through a period of great change. We have been fortunate that the President and Vice President themselves share a deep conviction that our future depends on continuing to support science and technology -- our economic gains, our national security, and our quality of life, all depend on it.

But the pace of change ushered in last November has made securing the future of science and technology investments immensely more difficult. How can we advocate for science funding, when deep cuts for hospitals, schools, police, and housing are on the block, too? Why should we maintain a portfolio of solid R&D investments, when it may well mean cuts to school lunch programs, environmental protection, anti-terrorist activities?

These questions are difficult enough given the Administration's continuing commitment to cut the deficit momentum, a deficit we inherited from past Administrations; they approach the impossible in the face of the Congressional juggernaut to bring the deficit to zero by 2002. Under these conditions, how do we convince the American people that preserving S&T funding is equally important in terms of providing a more secure and robust future?

Crumbling Bipartisan Support

Fifty years ago this week, in his office at the Carnegie Institution on 16th Street, Vannevar Bush was putting the finishing touches on a document that he was to send to another President -- President Truman. Released to the public on July 19, 1945, it was an instant hit. It was hailed across the nation and by both political parties as a landmark statement of why the government should support science and technology. It became a statement of national consensus about the kind of future we wanted, and how support of science would enable us to get there.

The publication of Science, the Endless Frontier marked the beginning of what have been 50 years of strong, bipartisan support for science, technology, and higher education. Yet today, after a half century of resounding success, this long- standing support is in jeopardy.

The House and Senate are now talking about cuts that would wipe out a third of our civilian science and technology investments over the next four years. The Congress would slash and even abandon broad areas of research that are vital in understanding how the global environment works and how to build our economy. Under these projected cuts, we would sink far below other industrialized nations in the percentage of our gross domestic product invested in research and development.

We also know that the government ought to be doing a better job of assessing risk so that we can make sure that all regulations make sense, and are based on sound analysis. But you need information to make such analyses, and some in Congress are trying to decimate the data collection and analyses, both scientific and socio-economic, that make risk assessment possible. What we could well end up with is lawyers arguing the points of the law while nothing gets done. After all, wetlands don't change because someone in Washington decides to change the definition of a wetland. Recent attempts by reactionaries in Congress to define away the majority of our wetlands by imposing pseudoscientific conditions make a mockery of good science, rational analysis, and thoughtful stewardship.

Proposals to eliminate the National Biological Service and slash global change research rest on the same know-nothing stance. Some in Congress seem to believe that what we don't know won't hurt us. But we all lose by failing to understand the world in which we live.

We in the Clinton Administration believe that, in looking for savings, Congress is not paying appropriate attention to protecting key investments that are at least as important in providing for the future as debt reduction. The leaders of the 21st century will be those nations that excel in education, science and technology. They will be the nations able to take advantage of new opportunities. They will be the nations that can respond to environmental, economic, military challenges.

The 21st century will severely test human knowledge. We will need to feed and improve the living standards of a burgeoning population. We will need to find replacements for fossil fuels -- and be prepared to adjust to global climate change. Such changes come upon us slowly, but the capability to deal with them also requires long-term investments that enable the change to be accommodated.

This Administration agrees wholeheartedly that we need to balance the budget. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do so. There are ways that will make us stronger and ways that will leave us weaker. We must be very wary of those who argue that long-term issues such as global environmental change are best ignored. On these and other decisions we make today, we will be judged by our children and grandchildren.

Two Cultures -- And A Second Look

Essentially, we are being presented with two very different views of governnance for the 21st century. Many members of Congress are acting upon the general impression that government is inevitably intrusive and wasteful. This Administration disagrees. We believe that government can be a force for good in the life of the nation -- that government can help create a more perfect union -- and we will stand by that conviction no less fervently than did the Founding Fathers.

It will be easy today to leave this room having heard all the speakers talk about the importance of science and technology, and to believe that this apparently-shared commitment to the value of science will carry us into the next century. But while we share many common goals, the Administration and Congress differ greatly on how to achieve them -- and the way we obtain the goals has everything to do with what kind of system you end up with in the end.

After 12 years of talking about fiscal constaints while we let government grow and tripled the national debt with a hemorrhage of overspending, this Administration from its outset has been making the hard decisions that need to be made. For the first time since the Truman Administration, the annual budget deficit has dropped for three years running. In fact, if not for the interest on the multi-trillion dollar debt run up during the Reagan and Bush years, the federal government would be running a surplus right now.

Where the Administration is using a scalpel to trim programs, leaving them more effective, the Congress would use a meat ax that cleaves out bone and muscle along with fat. While the Administration believes in building partnership pipelines to enable and speed the flow of research from the laboratory bench to the marketplace, the Congress would build ditches that divert the flow only to the lucky or the rich. And while this Administration suppports basic research as the wellspring of the future, the Congress would poison the wells that might interfere with its political agenda -- in environment, sociology, behavior, and other areas of research.

Many members of Congress think that they know what they are doing -- they are balancing the budget. But they don't seem to realize what they are undoing in the process. It can take 100 years to grow a tree, but it only takes a few minutes to chop it down. As a recent Science editorial by Rich Nicholson put it: "The United States has created a fantastic system for simultaneously producing new knowledge and new talent. It is a system that will be very easy to tear down, yet slow and difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild."

There is an alternative to tearing down the system. We can use the commitment to balance the budget as an opportunity to examine the rationale and functions of the full range of science and technology programs. The world for which Vannevar Bush wrote 50 years ago no longer exists. We are entering a new era. We need to take a fresh look at how we pursue and use new knowledge.

The Clinton Administration s vision for science and technology is expressed in the report Science in the National Interest, which was released last August. Among the goals established in that report were maintaining leadership across the frontiers of scientific knowledge, enhancing connections between fundamental research and national goals, and producing the finest scientists and engineers for the 21st century. We continue to refine this report and this vision in regional meetings across the country; just last week such a meeting was hosted by Florida A&M.

Achieving these goals requires adequate resources, which is why funding for science has been protected in the Administration s plan to balance the budget. As the President announced earlier this month, we have proposed adding $2.5 billion a year to the NIH budget by 2002. We have proposed adding $500 million a year to NSF s budget by 2002. Also by 2002, NASA s basic research, including Mission to Planet Earth, would go up by $500 million a year.

It is very difficult to achieve even these modest increases in today s budget climate. For the past two and a half years this Administration has been engaged in a zero sum game in terms of spending -- a far cry from the inflation-plus numbers that obtained in the free-spending Reagan and Bush years.

Aldo Leopold's first rule of tinkering is to keep all the cogs and wheels. And the "tinkering" that has allowed us to maintain this level of investment keeps the cogs and wheels. In our approach to preparing ourselves for a post-Cold-War world, a world in which we have fewer discretionary fiscal resources, we've been working away at getting more for less: President Clinton chairs the National Science and Technology Council that draws on the expertise of the agencies to capitalize on synergies and eliminate duplication, inefficiency, and miscommunication. Rather than agency integration, the Congressional approach is agency elimination -- and without saving a dime more than our reorganizational efforts. We've been increasing productivity -- Congress would simply cut programs. And we've diversified, maintaining a balanced portfolio of direct investments though public-private partnerships and indirect investments such as R&D tax credits and streamlined regulation. Congress would draw the line by only supporting basic research aqnd disengaging from assisting in precompetitive technology development -- even when it promises enormous public benefits. At the same time, our competitors abroad are stacking the deck through their own public-private cooperation..

Government support for applied research and development is nothing new. In 1842 Congress appropriated $30,000 for Samuel Morse to build a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore to demonstrate the feasibility of the new technology Morse had developed. Since then the government has continued to make far- sighted investments in agriculture, aviation, electronics, medicine, energy, space -- investments that have made us world leaders in these areas.

But in recent decades the world has changed in ways that have changed the government s responsibilities for technology development. Today we live in a world increasingly dominated by the advancement of knowledge. Individual firms in highly competitive markets cannot capture much of the return to new fundamental knowledge. Knowledge therefore becomes in part a public good, and the only way to ensure adequate investment in a public good is through public involvement.

It's ironic to me that the Congress would be taking steps now to retrench from such investments. In recent years, companies have been cutting back on generic and long-range research, in part because of intense competition from abroad. If Congress now cuts federal support to basic research, and removes itself entirely from applied R&D, the gap between the generators of new scientific knowledge, and the people in a position to apply that knowledge, will widen.

It is a perilous time to be decimating the government's investments in technology. The Critical Technologies Report that our office recently released concluded that the United States is ahead or tied with Europe and Japan in all 27 areas of technology examined. But our leads are small and shrinking -- often very rapidly. Our competitors are aided hand-in-glove by their governments. If we want to maintain leadership -- or even parity -- we cannot stand still.

The proposals being made by Congress reflect an inadequate picture of the world. The Congress assumes that basic research can be neatly separated from applied research and development. That's just plain wrong. In today's society, where science and technology so thoroughly permeate our lives, these sharp distinctions can no longer be made. Science and technology are like a huge tapestry, with the threads intermingling in a single pattern. Start pulling a thread here or a thread there, and you might not notice it on a tapestry of this size. But pull out a third of the threads and you ll be left with a mass of tangled yarn.

This month's Physics Today provides an elegant example. In an effort to compensate for the flaw in the Hubble Telescope's primary mirror, workers at the Space Telescope Science Institute developed a large collection of image-processing sofware. The software acts to help spot faint stars in blurry images. It turns out that finding that faint star is a lot like finding microcalcifications -- faint spots in a blurry mammogram image that can signal breast cancer. Current mammography images only show microcalcifications 250 microns large or larger; the new techniques developed for use with the Hubble can yield resolution down to 50 microns. With resolution like that, many more case of breast cancer can be detected, and detected early enough for successful treatment.

When Dan Goldin testified before Congress on the need to support imaging science at NASA, he didn't promise Congress a breast cancer treatment in return for their funding. He couldn't have known -- none of us could -- what benefits this new technology might spawn.

Toward the Future

How do we make sure that these kinds of breakthroughs keep happening, and that they bear fruit across the R&D spectrum and for all Americans? Luckily, in protecting research and development as vital investments in our future, the science and technology communities are not alone. In a recent editorial, the New York Times wrote:

Cutting the science budget will save a few billion dollars a year in a $6 trillion economy. Knocking out innovative research can lead to stagnant productivity and growth. By that calculation, the House plan is an irresponsible gamble.

And this from the Washington Post:

It's necessary to balance the federal budget, just as it is necessary to enforce corporate efficiency. But it's also necessary to accomplish those things in ways that do not jeopardize the country's future standard of living.

This kind of support from the media is invaluable. But I want to emphasize that the primary responsibility for making the case to Congress and the American people belongs to the science and technology community. We are the ones who are most familiar with both the potential and the limitations of science and technology. As C.P. Snow once wrote, Scientists have the future in their bones. It is our obligation to convey that sense of the future to others.

If we are to reverse the substantial momentum that lies behind proposed cuts in science and technology, we need to engage many different communities: the R&D community, the industrial community, the education community -- ultimately the entire American populace, because they are the ones who will suffer the most from these changes.

But none of us will get a full meal if we continue to fight each other for table scraps. Rather, we need to present the best case for our future as a nation -- not our future as a high- energy physicist, or a biosystematist, or an immunologist. And we have to do this in the most effective manner we can. We need to capture the nation's attention. If we can do that, the facts will speak for themselves.

This is an anxious time, because change generates anxiety. In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci writes that:

Crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.

We are in just such an interregnum -- the vision that was Vannevar Bush's wanes, and a new vision has not yet firmly rooted in the minds and hearts of the people. Yet the American public recognizes that change is inevitable. The President and Vice President were elected because of their commitment to change. We now have a Congress that has made a similar vow.

For all the differences between the Administration and Congress, there are many convictions we share. For both, science is a most powerful agent for change in our society. In the end, that is why we must continue to support research, even as we move to balance the budget. Science and technology will not only enable us to stop digging deeper into the hole of deficit spending; they will enable us to climb out of the hole we have dug.

The Clinton Administration wants to work with Congress. An endless string of vetoes will damage the country as well as the government. The leaders of Congress are hard-working advocates for change; their convictions and their tenacity are admirable. But every member of Congress needs to understand the enormity of the changes that are being proposed, and the impact those changes would have on the American public.

I have been faulted in recent weeks for introducing a partisan note in the debate on science and technology funding. The science advisor to the President has always been apolitical, I've been told, a cheerleader for science who left the world of politics behind and worked for the overall good of the community.

That's fine if you're a science advisor with an expanding budget. If your job is to hand out money, then it's very easy to be on good terms with everybody. I do not have that luxury.

It is not a pleasant task to go before the Congress and tell them they're making a big mistake -- that they are compromising the nation's future for the sake of ideology. It isn't easy to tell good friends on the Hill -- on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers -- that the bipartisan support for R&D that we've built up over the past 200 years is gravely threatened.

It is not a pleasant task to come before the nation's leaders in science and technology -- and you're sitting in front of me this morning -- and deliver an unpalatable message that you would just as soon not hear. It isn't easy to urge you to take time from your work in science and education to become more active participants in the national debate over the role of government support for science and technology...not as lobbyists for your particular area of science, but for the whole enterprise of science and technology.

But this is my job, and if I must, I will use the harsh rhetoric that focuses attention on science and technology issues. I do not want to be the science advisor on whose watch our future foundered for lack of commitment to the very things that made us great. The President does not want to be remembered as the President who ceded world leadership to other countries -- in science, in technology, in economic growth and productivity -- because he could not be heard above the howl of the budget- cutting frenzy and the din of debate over other national issues.

If that means that I am partisan, so be it. But the partisanship is for science -- to provide and preserve our nation's future. [It's easier to gin up the enthusiasm for this task after you become a grandfather!] And I urge you to be partisans with me -- partisans for the future -- or that future is a bleak one indeed.

You have a very special role to play -- you understand the issues, and you are educators. You must help us convey this message to the nation, and especially to its leaders.

With persistence and good faith, we can find areas of agreement and build on those areas. As John F. Kennedy said, "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future."