President’s Science Advisor Gets Frosty Reception From Approps Committee

In his first appearance before the newly constituted Science, State, Justice, and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee, John Marburger, the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, found himself “rebuked” for “arrogant” and “inappropriate” testimony by the members of the Subcommittee, according to National Journal’s Tech Daily (sub. req’d). Marburger apparently had the temerity to highlight an “earmark” from lawmakers creating a science program in his opening statement, prompting subcommittee chair Frank Wolf (R-VA) to interrupt him.

Wolf accused Marburger of insinuating that “if it’s an earmark from the Congress, then it’s automatically wrong.”
“I think there is a degree of arrogance in your answer,” said Wolf, who chairs the House Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee. “I think it’s inappropriate.”
Wolf, who was criticized in his re-election campaign last year for supporting earmarked projects in his district, rattled off a list of congressional mandates for science programs and grilled Marburger about whether he believes they were a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Marburger answered that certain earmarks, typically characterized by critics as pork-barrel spending, are “not as bad as others” and then quickly added that “some are better than others.”
Both answers had Wolf and other members on the panel visibly irritated. Several lawmakers lectured Marburger about their constitutional obligation to control the government’s purse strings and create government programs.

While I probably side with Marburger over the issue of earmarks — they’ve increased in number every year and often compete with peer-reviewed, merit-based funding in the budget — I have to side with the committee when they raise concerns over U.S. competitiveness being at risk because of a failure to invest in fundamental research, as they also did in yesterday’s hearing.

Marburger also told the panel that he does not agree with recent reports that the United States is losing its competitive edge in science and technology.
“I think you are in the minority in regard to our competitiveness,” said Wolf, who had announced earlier in the hearing that he would introduce legislation to forgive the interest on student loans for individuals who major in math and science.
Wolf also said he is worried that the Bush administration’s budget request has “zeroed out” some science programs because he argued that the United States is “falling behind” other countries.
At a separate event on Friday, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., echoed Wolf’s sentiments. “This country is sadly slipping behind in its cadre” of scientists and mathematicians, Warner said.
The senator added that he would like to allocate funding from the $13 billion Pell Grant program for math and science education, and give students who major in cyber security a free education in return for public service in the government to combat cyber attacks.

So in the first science-related hearing of the new subcommittee there’s reason for both optimism and concern. Clearly the leaders of the subcommittee have embraced the idea that support for fundamental research and math and science programs will help the U.S. retain its competitive advantage in the global economy. However, they’ve also vigorously defended earmarking the science budget. Wolf, the new committee chair, is sort of a blank slate for the science community, so we need to take the opportunity to make him comfortable with the case for basic research. Expect to see more in the coming weeks….

President’s Science Advisor Gets Frosty Reception From Approps Committee