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Briefing by President's science adviser on budget for science

STANFORD -- One of John Gibbons' favorite quotes is from Victor Hugo: "Science has the first word on everything, but the last word on nothing."

According to Gibbons, President Clinton's science adviser, nowhere is Hugo's statement more appropriate than at congressional budget debates of the sort now raging in Washington, D.C.

On June 13 -- the day President Clinton dramatically changed the dynamic of the national budget debate by offering his own plan to balance the federal budget in 10 years -- Gibbons held a long-scheduled press briefing for Bay Area science writers at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Events are moving dangerously fast on Capitol Hill and those who are not making their positions heard are likely to be the losers as cuts are made, Gibbons warned. Although the university research community has a major stake in the outcome, so far it has been conspicuous in its silence, he said.

"I've had several veteran legislators tell me that they had expected to get a barrage of calls from university presidents and other members of the research community in their districts but have not heard anything."

Gibbons described how the president proposes to treat science and technology in his budget-balancing plan.

"When President Clinton ran for office, he ran on a platform of change, fiscal responsibility and investment in education and research," Gibbons said. The president's interpretation of fiscal responsibility was to begin reducing the deficit as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, the measure that most economists consider important. Gibbons said that the administration had achieved this goal by reducing the deficit from 4.9 percent to 2.1 percent of GDP.

"In this last election, the Republicans came in on the same wave, but the nature of the wave was different. Their focus is on balancing the budget. They picked seven years to do it and included a major tax reduction, " Gibbons said.

But, as details of the Republican plans began to come to light through mark-ups in the appropriations bills, the White House became increasingly concerned, Gibbons said. Among other things, the Republican budget has been shaping up as an "unmitigated disaster for science and technology," he said.

The Republicans would wipe out programs designed to develop new technologies to the point where they are competitive with existing technologies. While calling for risk- benefit analysis of all new government regulations, the GOP would eliminate funding for all socioeconomic research, including research that forms the basis for risk-benefit analysis. Support for federal laboratories and major research universities would be "deeply undercut" while support for advanced education in general would be put at "severe risk," Gibbons said.

All this bodes ill for the future, Gibbons said. "About half the productivity gains that the United States has experienced in the last 50 years is due to our modest investment in research and development. This spending has had a return on investment of about 50 percent, higher than almost any other form of investment."

Because Clinton saw the potential for "a real train wreck" if the process continued as it was going, he ordered his officials to sharpen their pencils and come up with a plan for going beyond simply reducing the deficit as a percent of GDP to total reduction, Gibbons said.

"It turns out if you stretch the glide path for reduction from seven to 10 years, it makes an enormous difference. The 10-year time frame is the result of careful analysis. I don't know where the seven-year figure came from, except that it's a prime number," Gibbons quipped.

"This stretch-out allows us to protect education and research and development," he said. These programs would be maintained at constant purchasing level, while other discretionary government spending would be reduced by about 20 percent over the period. "Pacing is very important. If you move too rapidly, you leave a lot of broken glass behind," he said.

"High-technology states like California are among those that have the most to lose in the Republican budget. Consequently, California is among those with the most to gain if the president's approach prevails," the science adviser said.

The Republican approach is to eliminate entire agencies such as the Department of Commerce, shut down most of the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and merge the departments of Labor and Education, among other proposals. The White House, on the other hand, believes in the internal reformation of government departments and agencies. Gibbons said Clinton wants to preserve "centers of excellence" within the government and concentrate cutbacks on unneeded and inefficient areas. An example of the president's preferred approach is the major reorganization that NASA administrator Dan Goldin has started at the space agency, Gibbons said.

Still, the administration will be looking very closely at all high-ticket science projects. "It will be very difficult to get another major fusion energy project approved, no matter how strong the justification," he said.

One area in which there appears to be considerable agreement between the president and the congressional Republicans is in support of basic science, at least at the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, Gibbons acknowledged. In his estimation, however, Republican support for basic research at other agencies, like the Department of Energy, is problematical.

Applied applications and technology transfer programs are the areas of the greatest difference between the GOP and White House, the science adviser said. Cooperative research and development agreements, or CRADAs, designed to transfer technology from the national laboratories to private enterprise, are one type of program that the Republicans don't like. Organizations on their elimination list include the National Biological Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. "Fortunately, the Kobe quake appears to have given them second thoughts about eliminating USGS, but they haven't relented on the biological service," he said.

The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which Gibbons headed before moving to the White House, is another Republican target. "I've done all I can, but I doubt if it can be saved at this point." Gibbons said. One aspect of the situation that causes him to lose sleep, he added, is the fact that the Republicans would throw out a key bipartisan agency that is designed to provide Congress with technical assistance, and which accounts for only 4 percent of the General Accounting Office. "The way they are doing this, they seem to be saying, 'Ignorance is the route to salvation.' "



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