Is science policy partisan?

New America Foundation fellows say no. Terence says, not so fast—

By Terence Houston, Policy Analyst, and Liza Lester, Communications Officer

In the thick of Presidential debate season, with November 6th bearing down upon us, DC think tank the New America Foundation teamed up with Slate Magazine and Arizona State University to “Delve into ‘12” and ask a panel of wonks and journalists if partisan promises translate into real policy differences for science and technology. Does it matter whether Obama is reelected or Romney replaces him? What will change if the Democrats lose the Senate? “It’s Science and Tech Policy, Stupid,” a Future Tense event, promised answers. Liza went to the event and returned bewildered. Luckily, Terence (ESA’s policy analyst) was on hand to put the New America discussion into perspective. In this post, you get Liza’s introduction followed by Terence’s commentary.


Liza: so is science politically polarizing or not? I’m confused.

Science and technology are not partisan, according to Konstantin Kakaes, a fellow at New America, former Knight Science Journalism fellow and Economist reporter. Or perhaps he meant that what politicians say they will do isn’t what they actually do, when campaign rhetoric meets legislative reality. He seemed to be arguing both, so the message got a bit muddled.

Kakaes pointed to the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider 20 years ago, fallen to Senate vs. House bickering, not partisan disputes. The loss didn’t really matter to physics, though, not in the way that you would think based on the hype, or  at least not as far as politicians could tell, he added. All politicians exaggerate the benefits of the projects they champion, he said. “It’s a matter of being a politician rather than being a politician of one ideological stripe or another.” And neither party heeds sound scientific advice, whether crystal clear, as in the case of missile defense, or framed in more vague presentiments of foreboding and lack of knowledge, as with recent fracking recommendations. Military requisitions and energy policy are dominated by economic and political concerns, not scientific advice.

Kakaes’ point of view is kind of reassuring, in spite of his attitude of futility. To have its fortunes tied to a political party is not good for science, or any entity. (See the history of Planned Parenthood for a case study in the damage such political alignments can do). We don’t want science to be partisan. But…calls to shutter the EPA emerged from the Republican-held House not long ago. Repudiations of climate science and evolution have left scientists feeling that there is a definite partisan divide yawning—or worse, that congressional confidence in science is waning.

A few weeks ago, Representative Paul Broun (R-Ga.), a physician who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” Was Kakaes saying our worries are an illusion? That the science skeptics are just a few loud voices, signifying nothing?

Kakaes is skeptical that passionate anti-science declarations like Broun’s have real consequences for science funding. “How much does that attitude actually affect science policy? The National Science Foundation keeps chugging along. It doesn’t actually provoke the apocalyptic vision of the pit of hell that the quote would have you think,” he said.

I had the impression that public R&D funding (including NSF’s) is poised to fall right over January’s fiscal cliff – a consequence of government spending crashing into the debt ceiling, congressional deadlock, and automatic cuts coming due just as the Bush tax cuts expire. It sounded like some legislators were prepared to sacrifice science & tech, along with other non-defense discretionary funding, in order to keep more money for defense. Isn’t the budget negotiation a big partisan cage match?

Stacy Cline, Counsel for Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said that, over broad strokes of history, it’s probably true that political party is not a good predictor of investment in science and technology legislation. Both parties have supported science, and, at times, ignored its advice. But, she said, the situation is a little different in this election cycle due to the difficult budgetary environment.

Unfortunately, the panel discussion rapidly wandered off into the weeds of STEM education, a worthy but tangential topic. I never did learn what it was that the science and tech policy, as the event title so forcefully interjected, “is,” which, I guess, left me feeling stupid.


Terence: yes, the two parties do differ on science policy implementation – substantially.

Konstantin Kakaes seemed to suggest that the differences between the two major political parties with respect to their rhetorical positions in how they weigh scientific advice ultimately has little to no bearing in the actual implementation of federal policy. “The fundamental question is, is this sound scientific advice being heeded and the answer is no by neither political party,” he rationed, noting that funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), to date, continues unabated.

NSF is among the few agencies today that retains a level of bicameral and bipartisan support, due in large part to Commerce Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf’s (R-VA) strong belief that the US needs to remain globally competitive in innovation.

Nonetheless, this is among the few exceptions to the rule, exceptions which seem to be rapidly dwindling the deeper we get into addressing the upcoming “fiscal cliff” and its prospective impacts on science funding. Kakaes’s sentiment seems not to have taken into account the type of legislation that has been considered in Congress over these past two years. One bonus of the current divided 112th Congress, where Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate, is we are allotted a clear picture of the different types of legislation advanced by the two parties.

To be sure, the differences between individual members of the two parties with respect to science are hardly monolithic. In one recent instance, House CJS Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf actually outshined his Democratic Senate counterpart with respect to NSF funding. For Fiscal Year 2011, proposed funding for NSF in the House proposed bill was $200 million greater than the Senate bill, largely due to a slight difference of priorities among the Chairs of the House and Senate CJS appropriations subcommittee, both of whom are general supporters of science funding.

However, this has been the anomaly amongst several legislative attempts to curb the role science plays in impacting federal policy, overwhelming put forward by the Republican House. Enclosed is a small yet notable sampling of key differences between the parties concerning legislation of interest to the ecological community that has been consider over the course of this current session of Congress.

Science Funding

While Congressional support for science has been generally bipartisan, the latitude and degree with which that funding is implemented divides along partisan lines.

In May 2012, the House adopted an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) that would reduce funding for NSF’s political science division. The amendment passed with a handful of votes, 218-208. Five out of 186 Democrats supported the amendment. In contrast, however, 213 out of 240 Republicans voted for the amendment, including Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX). The leading Democrats on both those committees opposed the amendment.

Another Flake amendment that would have reduced funding for NSF by $1.2 billion was rejected by a vote of 121-191. To be sure, the amendment could not have failed without opposition from a large number of Republicans, including both Wolf and Hall. However, while all 179 Democrats who voted on the amendment opposed it, House Republicans were almost evenly split with a slight majority (121) supporting the amendment and (112) opposing it. Hence, while House Democrats are united in opposition to efforts that would deter funding for NSF, in general Republicans are more divided on the issue.

Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education


House legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is supported by Republican committee leaders, but not committee Democrats. The legislation is broken into two bills, the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act, which STEM advocates contend eliminates the Department of Education’s only existing STEM education-focused program – the Math and Science Partnership program, and the Student Success Act, which removes the requirement to test students in science, consequently eliminating the incentive for schools to invest their limited resources in science education.


The Senate legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes provisions (Sec. 4103) that call for specific investment in STEM education.  Section 4103 of the bill is based upon S. 1675, the Preparing Students for Success in the Global Economy Act of 2011, introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), which utilizes a balanced approach of competitive and formula-based grant funding to states in meeting STEM education needs.

Agricultural conservation


The House Agriculture Committee passed a bill that achieves savings with cuts food stamp and conservation programs. Though it was approved by committee with bipartisan support, House Republican leadership refused to take the bill up for a floor vote nor have they elected to take up the Senate bill.


The Senate passed a bipartisan farm bill June 21 by a bipartisan vote of 64-35 that preserves funding for conservation programs. Most of the bill’s savings are achieved through consolidation of existing programs and changes to crop assistance programs that have beein in place in some form since the Great Depression. The House legislation also lacks the Senate bill’s $800 billion in mandatory funding for renewable energy.

Environmental regulations and climate change


The House has passed numerous bills intended to curb the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas regulations, enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act and mitigate the environmental and health impacts of mercury pollution and coal production. House Interior and Environment appropriations bills, which fund the majority of federal environmental initiatives, typically include dozens of riders to restrict funding for environmental regulations, including environmental reviews of energy production initiatives.

Among these riders was an attempt to prevent the US Fish and Wildlife Service from listing species as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. An amendment from House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norman Dicks (D-WA) struck this provision when this bill was considered on the House floor by a vote of 224-202. While the amendment did pass with bipartisan support, Democrats overwhelmingly supported the amendment 187-2 while Republicans mostly opposed the amendment 37-200. Twelve votes in the other direction would have killed the amendment.

House Republican committee leaders are also more likely to question the science behind evolution theory and climate change. House hearings specific to climate change have been more likely to have a large number of climate skeptic witnesses with less of a focus on scientists representing the consensus sentiment or the role of science in general.

The House has also repeatedly passed legislation to approve the Keystone pipeline that would void the environmental review process for the latest proposed route.


The existing Senate Democratic leadership has repeatedly refused to even consider most House-passed EPA deregulation bills for a vote, noting that they would likely be vetoed by the current White House. Were the Senate or the White House to change parties, this type of legislation would stand a greater chance of either reaching the White House or being signed into law. Senate Interior and Environment appropriations bills are generally free of riders that would limit EPA’s regulatory authority or stifle the environmental review process, which includes opportunities to inform policy with scientific input.

Senate committee leaders are more likely to trumpet the scientific consensus on evolution and climate change, noting that climate change is being driven by human impacts. Senate hearings on this issue are more likely to include scientist witnesses representing the majority consensus and other witnesses who express this sentiment with less of a focus on industry concerns.

Elections have consequences

While one can argue what level or manner of science investment is necessary to advance innovation and economic parity for the nation, it’s a bit shortsighted to argue there are not substantial policy differences between the two parties on these issues, not just with respect to rhetoric, but how they would like to see science policy implemented. Due to the current fiscal crisis, it is unlikely we will see grand proposals from either side to drastically increase funding for science, regardless of what happens in the November elections. However, which party controls the White House and Senate, as well as the number of House seats occupied by allies of NSF after the election, will definitely have a large impact on the degree in which federal investment in science becomes the sacrificial lamb in efforts to reduce the national debt.

Photo credit: White House

Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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