The question to the ex-Congressman came from one of three Nobel Prize-winning scientists in the audience. How, asked Institute Professor Phillip A. Sharp, did it come about that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) got a Congressional commitment to double their budget?
The answer, by former Illinois Republican Congressman John E. Porter, was a lesson in lobbying for a galaxy of MIT professors and eight former Presidential science advisors attending MIT's May 1 celebration of the 25th anniversary of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Mr. Porter, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee for the NIH from 1995 to 2000, said the story went back to the Republicans' takeover of Congress in 1995 and their determination to cut spending. The budget resolution plan of House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia was to cut the NIH budget by 5 percent a year for five years.
"I'd been there 15 years but I was the new chairman of the committee that funds the NIH. I thought the budget resolution was insanity," Mr. Porter said.
He assembled a group of 10 medical researchers and CEOs and had an hour-long session with the speaker. At the end, Speaker Gingrich was asked for his reaction. He re- sponded, "I think we've made a terrible mistake, and I'm going to do all I can to reverse it," Mr. Porter recalled. Thus began the campaign to double the NIH budget over a 10-year period.
Funding increases in physical sciences must keep pace with the life sciences, he told the MIT audience, echoing a theme spoken by President Charles Vest and several of the Presidential science advisors.
Mr. Porter, who attended MIT in 1953-54, urged scientists to take an active role in informing Congress about the needs of science.
"The best argument for science and technology funding in Congress is its positive effect on the American economy. 'It's the economy, stupid' -- the most profound political statement of the past century -- is something members of Congress can understand. High-paying, high-tech jobs are a very persuasive commodity," said the former Congressman.
"While I realize that scientists by nature often feel uncomfortable with advocacy, if we all stayed within our comfort zones, little would be accomplished. Though perhaps they are not well understood, scientists are highly respected in our society. They are also highly credible. When they speak with a unified voice, the people listen.
"While recent progress has been made, this power has yet to be fully developed or applied. Some way should be devised to work it into the academic training of future scientists. The political door can be opened by science advocacy, but like everything else, this is dependent on leadership," Mr. Porter said.
"My perspective is that science and technology have yet to be perceived as important goals for the nation -- that they have been called to the table as the need has been perceived to do so, and that few Presidents have come to office with scientific background or understanding," he said.
"You will find science and technology portfolios in at least nine departments and four major agencies of the federal government. We can celebrate this as an ascent of science in its importance within our government and to the American people. But because appropriations structures in Congress mirror this departmental lineup, Congress has spread science funding through a number of appropriations subcommittees, and in all but one -- the one I was privileged to chair -- it is a relatively minor part of the subcommittee's allocated funds and, unfortunately, gets an equivalent measure of the members' attention."
LACK OF UNDERSTANDING
Mr. Porter added, "The problem of lack of scientific training or background or even understanding among members of Congress is profound. While we have two physicists, one chemist and eight MDs (together with five engineers and four dentists, all of whom but one lists another occupation) in the House, probably a high-water mark, that's really about 11 to 15 out of 435 members, or 2 to 3 percent.
"Amid a slew of attorneys in the 100-member Senate, we have one heart transplant surgeon and two veterinarians. Also, I might add, aprofessional baseball player, an actor and a jewelry designer.
"The chairs of the Senate and House subcommittees funding the largest science portfolios are lawyers or business executives. The chairs of the respective authorizing committees -- the ones who write science and technology policy -- include a first-term lawyer, a naval officer, a county official and a farmer.
"This is to say nothing about their appreciation and commitment to science and technology, but only to reflect on their all-too-typical backgrounds in the legislative branch," Mr. Porter said.
"Lacking an understanding of scientific method and the oftentimes serendipitous nature of research, as well as any distinction between basic and applied [science], they believe generally that research must justify itself in terms of serving specific societal goals and can simply be directed and funded to achieve them.
"Consequently, they have been earmarking too much research for the past 120 years or so, to the point, for example, that today, 50 percent of the research funding in Agriculture's budget is specifically earmarked. On the other hand, we have fought the 'disease of the week' mentality in Congress for the past 50 years and mostly succeeded.
"Yet in America, science careers are not 'hot'; most of our children seem to want to be stockbrokers. Science education in many of our schools is not a high priority and qualified science teachers are hard to find. If we had not had the influx of foreign science talent and brain power, I believe we would be in serious difficulty. Thank God for our emphasis on human freedom and open scientific inquiry," Mr. Porter continued.
"Today we have a new administration in Washington. It follows one which professed a high degree of value in science and technology, but as in so many other areas, fell short in leadership and commitment.
"In the new administration -- any new administration -- the science advisor should advise on the selection of key science people in other federal departments and agencies. Unfortunately, no science advisor has yet been appointed," Mr. Porter said.
The eight former Presidential science advisors attending the conference (and the Presidents they served) were William T. Golden (Truman), Donald Hornig (Johnson), Edward E. David Jr. (Nixon), H. Guyford Stever (Nixon and Ford), George A. Keyworth III (Reagan), D. Allan Bromley (George H.W. Bush), John Gibbons (Clinton) and Neal Lane (Clinton).
"Budget impact is also needed from a science advisor to the President. One new Presidential budget for fiscal year 2002 has already gone forward without science advice (and with real decrease for many science accounts) and another is currently being put together, so science advice may miss the next budget cycle as well," Mr. Porter said.
"I might add editorially (perhaps all my remarks today are editorial) that a number of science issues already have been dealt with without the input of a Presidential science advisor, from Kyoto to arsenic in drinking water to CO2 emissions to a national ballistic defense system.
"Our country has become and remains the world leader in science and technology, and fortunately, the synergy and partnership between government-funded research and industry [research and development] largely drives our economy. Our economic destiny, I believe, lies in education and research, education and technology," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 9, 2001.