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State of the science

Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images
President Bush delivers his State of the Union

address at the U.S. Capitol on Monday night.

President Bush's final State of the Union address broke new rhetorical ground on the scientific front, marking the first time he uttered the words "stem cells" and "carbon emissions" in his annual summing-up speech. He also received a standing ovation when he called on Congress to double the funding for basic research – and that applause should come as music to the ears of physicists facing layoffs.

But rhetoric doesn’t dictate reality: The key indicators will be what happens to federal spending on research and development once Congress gets its hands on the budget proposal due for release Monday – and what the next president will do to restore America’s scientific and technological leadership.

On that latter point, there just might be some progress: Organizers of an effort aimed at drawing out the presidential candidates on science and technology issues say they’re planning for a bipartisan forum in mid-April.

Back to big science

By that time, the research outlook should be better than it was a month ago, when Congress took a big bite out of this year's budget for big science. The months-overdue omnibus spending plan pulled back hundreds of millions of dollars that research facilities were counting on, and sparked plans to lay off hundreds of federally supported scientists - particularly at high-energy physics labs such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Fermilab.

Bush, who isn't usually thought of as the most science-savvy president, scolded Congress for failing to come through with funding for the administration's American Competitiveness Initiative last year. "This funding is essential to keeping our scientific edge," he said. "So I ask Congress to double federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences and ensure America remains the most dynamic nation on Earth."

That's when the lawmakers stood up and clapped - and Michael Lubell, who is the director of public affairs at the American Physical Society as well as a physics professor at the City College of New York, took notice.

"It really did generate what I thought was an extremely positive response," Lubell told me today. "At least maybe some of the members of Congress realize what they did was extremely damaging, and maybe they'll even repair some of it."

Lubell calls attention to three things Congress did that, "if left unchanged, would have such long-term impact that we will never recover in my lifetime":

  • Reneging on a $160 million contribution to ITER, the international fusion energy project now taking shape in France. Lubell said bowing out of ITER would leave the United States at a disadvantage in fusion research, deal a blow to the U.S. companies that were planning to build components for the reactor, and reinforce the view abroad that America is not a reliable partner on international projects. Washington might even have to pay a hefty kill fee. "If we pull out, we are on the line for a withdrawal penalty of 500 million euros," Lubell said. "This is not chump change."
  • Cutting back on high-energy physics projects, including preliminary studies looking ahead to the International Linear Collider. Again, that reinforces the "unreliable-partner" reputation, but the cutbacks bigger repercussions as well, Lubell said. "It's a field that generates all the accelerator technology used in radiation therapy and in X-ray light source facilities," he said.
  • Reducing operations at federally funded X-ray and neutron source facilities. Such installations may sound like ultra-geeky places with no real-world applications, but Lubell pointed out that they actually play a huge role in materials testing, microchip development and pharmaceuticals. "If you want to develop a new drug, you can't say, 'We'll wait another year,'" he said.

Lubell said he is still hoping that some science funding will be restored in a supplemental appropriation - perhaps slipped into war-funding legislation in late March or so. "The hope I have is based on conversations with a number of people," he said. The stopgap might involve, say, $100 million for ITER, $50 million for high-energy physics, and $100 million to $150 million for the X-ray and neutron sources.

That extra funding would help hard-hit researchers get through the next few months - and Congress may be in a position to provide further relief in the next fiscal year's budget. Cutting back on congressional "earmarks," as Bush suggested, might also change the equation, considering that the rapid growth in earmarks was thought to be a factor behind this year's R&D woes.

Debatable science

On other science and technology issues, Bush hailed the recent development of stem cell-like cells from skin cells and said funding "for this type of ethical medical research" would be expanded. He backed a variety of energy initiatives, ranging from a "new international clean-technology fund" to clean-coal technologies to nuclear power to renewables to better batteries. And he called for reaching agreement on international measures "to slow, stop and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases."

That all sounds great, although Bush's renewed call for a ban on human cloning might not sit well with some researchers. In any case, we're not likely to see dramatic action on those fronts until the next president makes his or her mark. We've already touched on how the campaign is shaping up on scientific grounds, and ScienceDebate2008 has been working to raise the profile of sci-tech issues.

Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science joined the call for a debate, and today the Council on Competitiveness became a co-sponsor. Shawn Lawrence Otto, a member of ScienceDebate2008's steering committee, said organizers are working to arrange an event in mid-April and invite the viable candidates, Democrats as well as Republicans, to participate.

"We think that science and technology are really nonpartisan issues, and we'd like to see what all the candidates have to say," Otto told me.

Would anyone show up? Just how important are science and technology issues to voters, and to the candidates? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 8:20 p.m. ET: Here are some extra comments that Otto sent via e-mail:

"We do notice that the president spoke about science and technology, competitiveness, health and global warming in his State of the Union speech last night, and several candidates have also begun to talk about these issues, so we feel that we and other organizations making similar efforts to elevate the issues in our national political dialogue are beginning to have an effect. Our supporters collectively represent millions of Americans of all parties, and serious treatment of these issues by the candidates and their government is a top priority for these voters."


Update for 2:40 a.m. ET Jan. 31: Space is an issue that Bush has never addressed during a State of the Union speech, although he devoted a whole talk to America's future space vision back in 2004. Nevertheless, space advocate Jeff Krukin argues in a blog post that many of Bush's State of the Union themes - from the environment to energy to education - touch upon the importance of space activities. Or at least they should.

Meanwhile, Kei Koizumi, who handles science policy issues for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, got back to me and noted that Bush's reference to doubling federal support for the physical sciences appears to be telegraphing what will be in next week's budget proposal. But what will Congress do to the administration's plans for research and development, now that we're getting into the heart of campaign season? "That is the big unanswerable question," Koizumi said.