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Q&A: House's Rocket Scientist 'Apprehensive' on Budget

As a rocket scientist, Democratic Rep. Rush Holt has now served the 12th Congressional District of New Jersey for more than a decade. He has helped monitor the nuclear programs of such countries as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the former Soviet Union, and has served as assistant director for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

Holt recently won his seventh consecutive term during the Nov. 4, 2010, midterm elections. The Democratic Party retained control of the Senate, but lost control of the House to a new Republican majority.

The Republican Party's Pledge to America proposes to roll back non-military discretionary spending to 2008 levels, which would mean cuts for federal agencies that fund or perform science research and development. The Obama administration had warned agencies to build 5 percent cuts into their proposed 2012 budgets relative to 2011, but the GOP plan would cut deeper.

LiveScience took the opportunity to ask Holt about how the midterm congressional elections could reshape science and technology policies or budgets in the future. [Infographic: Science R&D Spending in the Federal Budget]

Q: How do you think the recent midterm election results will impact policies and funding for science and technology?

A: The basic point is that I'm apprehensive about what's going to happen. We haven't completed the Competes Act — the reauthorization of the America Competes Act. The House has passed it, and the Senate committee has reported favorably on it but with no action. This provides the framework for all the research funding of the NSF [National Science Foundation], NIST [National Institutes of Standard and Technology], the National Institutes of Health [NIH], the Department of Energy and so forth. This was an important advance. The previous Competes Act and this reauthorization are really important. We really need to get that done.

We also need to get appropriations done. As it is, we're operating on a continuing resolution, and I'm not at all optimistic that we'll get the appropriations done for science, energy, commerce ... On both the authorization and appropriation, I'm afraid that we're not going to move forward, and that worries me.

I don't need to tell you all the "Gathering Storm" [report] statistics, but it is important to move forward. In the follow-up [2010 report], it shows not so much that the U.S. has slipped, but that we haven't moved forward and everyone else has. That's true in science education, innovation and research. We're losing ground relative to others. (Congress commissioned a 2005 report, titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which called for the U.S. to boost scientific research and education.) That's why we need America Competes, and why we need to make permanent the R&D tax credit, and why we need to do other things to stimulate private sector innovation. I have legislation that would provide individual tax credits for research-intensive small businesses.

We want to do things to encourage innovation in the private sector, and certainly there are things we've got to do in science education. Some of that is government funding, much of it is not.

Q: What kind of science funding cuts are we talking about?

A: With regard to the public sector, if you look at the Republican Pledge to America, if they carry it out as it's laid there — if the new majority acts on that — we'll be reducing NSF by almost 19 percent, the Department of Energy's [Office of] Science by almost 18 percent, NIH by about 9 percent, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] by 34 percent...

The crazy thing about this is that they say they're doing it for fiscal discipline, and the fact is that all of this is really not going to balance the budget. We're talking about something that's about a percent of the budget and it makes a huge difference in this research, but it's miniscule in its budgetary effects. So it's really short-sighted. We've made some real investments in the past years. I helped get $22 billion of new money for science research into the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act]. They were put in there for short-term job benefits, but also because they set the stage for longer-term growth. But now if they kind of yank the reins back after a couple of years of trying to move forward in the public sector for research, it will have a very bad effect.

I think it will be pretty easy for [Republicans] to cut if they want to, and they claim that they want to. I think it will be very devastating. Federal research is only a few percent of the nation's discretionary budget — only a percent or so of the overall budget. It won't help balance the budget, and it will harm the economy in the short and long term.

Q: Are there any particular areas of research that could suffer more than others? How about energy?

A: Certainly on energy … the thing about the NSF is that it's across the board. Who would have thought that library science research would lead to Google? Who thought nuclear magnetic resonance would lead to MRIs [brain scans]? Who would think atomic light absorption would lead to lasers? The NSF has really contributed greatly to our economy. The Department of Energy's Offices of Science and Energy are really important, and to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in each one of those could hurt us in our efforts to be competitive in the marketplace for having efficient technologies. Whether it's building materials or transportation, drive trains or batteries, if we're not making these investments, we're losing out on the marketplace to countries that are making those investments.

There's easily going to be a trillion-dollar market — and that's not an exaggeration — out in the world for these technologies. Cutting back on funding would certainly be short- sighted.

Q: On the topic of energy, do you know what the Republicans have planned for ARPA-E? (A Department of Energy agency that focuses on funding high-risk, high-reward research aimed at energy innovation.)

A: I fear they will regard ARPA-E as a creation of the Democrats and therefore something that should be cut as a matter of principle. Clearly a major justification for ARPA-E — not the sole justification but a major one — is dealing with stresses to our climate. There are so many in the new majority who question whether there's anything at all wrong with what's happening to our climate.

Q: Is there still some common ground where Democrats and Republicans can work together on the climate change issue? How about reframing it in terms of energy security?

A: It's possible. I hope we can find some common ground. In the past I've worked with Republicans like Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Judy Biggert (R-Ill). Vernon has retired, and Judy is still around.

During the campaign I heard various people — including my opponent — say that environmental regulations are not founded in science but ideology. I disagree. I think this has been generally a more science-based environmental program than we've seen previously. They've been saying the attention to climate is ideology and not science — I beg to differ. I say that this comes from the work of thousands and thousands of scientists. It is opposition to any effort to address climate change that is based more on ideology than in science. But there is that difference, and I wouldn't be surprised if they act in a way — apart from the budget — that will reverse what has been happening.

Q: How much can the Republicans do to roll back the Obama administration's policies?

A: In terms of reversing administration policies about environmental protection, they will be somewhat limited. But in terms of cutting funding for the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], they'll be in a position to do that. To keep moving forward with these programs will require both the House and the Senate. And I fear that the House will say no.

Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.