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The Congressional Research Service Teaches Science to Congress


A study in forced neutrality

HERE is today’s lesson, class:

Science and technology (S&T) play an increasingly important role in our society. Advances in science and technology can help drive economic growth, improve human health, increase agricultural productivity, and help meet national priorities. Federal policies affect scientific and technological advancement on several levels.

It sounds like your old social studies textbook — the one that started from zero and spent hundreds of novocaine-brain pages plowing back and forth across the obvious, so that students of every potential from nothing to infinity might absorb a few basics. But it is actually the opening of the Congressional Research Service’s latest report for members of Congress about the science and technology issues they will encounter during the current session. In an era when the CRS has plenty of readers for whom positive connections among “S&T,” federal policies, and national priorities are rather less than paradigmatic, it can take nothing for granted. After all, prominent members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology have blamed global warming on dinosaur flatulence, warned that embryology and the Big Bang are lies straight from Hell, and cast aspersions on the First Lady’s anti-obesity campaign because of her “large posterior.” Nowadays the CRS must probe carefully for the most fruitful starting point, which is far, far below where it used to be.

Harper's Magazine  (August 1910)

Harper’s Magazine (August 1910)

Since 1952, when spies were presumed to be stealing American know-how at every turn (they were, they are, they always will), CRS reports have not been issued for the public, though they are in no way classified documents. A common citizen can get one from the government by asking for its number, a feat rather like already knowing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. (FYI, various organizations, particularly the Federation of American Scientists, collect them from friendly sources on the Hill and post them online.) For members of Congress, they are long-form Google answers with a human face, A+ term papers written by grinds who always hand in on time. Perhaps the Capitol’s last gasp of bipartisanship, they are solid as a rock, smooth as silk, and boring as hell, which perhaps explains why their budget has never been vaporized.

R43114, the forty-three-page S&T report for the 113th Congress, does start from absolute zero, so let’s open our copy and see what’s inside.

After several pages of explaining how the three branches of government work, to cover the apparently non-negligible possibility that some members arrive in Washington unclear about this, we find out right away that between 2009 and 2012, federal funding for all research and development fell from $147.3 billion to $140.9 billion, a decline of 4.3 percent in “current dollars” or 8.7 percent in “constant dollars.” The current/constant duet, which is ubiquitous in government budget talk, requires a bit of mental soft-shoe that could very well put certain members at a disadvantage. Inflation is slippery — just try to convince your grandmother why an ice-cream cone should cost $4.25 — and federal agencies inspired by the Pentagon learned long ago how to use it to feign imminent destitution across fiscal years. So the CRS takes no chances, emphasizing right away that this drop-off is “a reversal of sustained growth in federal R&D funding for more than half a century,” that such cuts are “exacerbated” by increases in other countries such as “China in particular,” and that American trade surpluses in high-tech products have been replaced by deficits. It’s a deft one-two-three rhetorical volley, combining respect for the past, patriotism, and the bottom line. Can anyone disagree?

These alarms are apparently insufficient, however, and here is where the CRS starts to display its peerless mastery of understatement. “Some Members of Congress have expressed concerns about the level of federal funding in light of the current federal fiscal condition, deficit, and debt,” the report calmly observes. There are even “differing perspectives on the appropriate role of the federal government in advancing science and technology.”

Now, it’s reasonable to assume that any sentient American is aware that not just some, but hundreds of members of Congress would rather chain the government’s doors than increase federal funding for anything, and that they believe every role the government plays is suspicious. The CRS approach? “Congress will play a central role in defining the nation’s R&D priorities as it makes decisions with respect to the size and distribution of aggregate, agency, and programmatic R&D funding.” And the angle of the sun’s rays at noon will play a central role in determining air temperature. Ready to move on.

The next ten pages breeze past the America COMPETES Act (a Bush-era law whose acronym is too long to spell out), which held hostage the National Science Foundation’s annual budget in order to impose a galaxy of provisions aimed at keeping scientists’ work practical. We learn that “experts widely accept that technological progress is responsible for up to one-half the growth of the U.S. economy,” with the caveat that “the social rate of return on R&D spending is over twice that of the rate of return to the inventor.” That is, don’t expect your favorite hometown entrepreneur/campaign contributor to get rich quick from this largesse.

We also learn from an unusually sharp factoid that the 112th Congress, which sat from January 2011 to January 2013, made the biggest changes to patent law since the nineteenth century, crowned by a ban on patents for human organisms. (Patents on new plant breeds have been obtainable since 1930 and on genetically modified organisms since 1980, but last year the Supreme Court outlawed them on naturally occurring human genes.) We get a quick glimpse at why so much Wall Street money sluices into dubious Silicon Valley startups: a 100 percent break on capital-gains tax for stock acquired in 2013, 50 percent for 2014 and thereafter — not too shabby. We learn that despite $3 billion in federal appropriations targeted to educational activities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the so-called STEM disciplines), American students are still woefully behind the rest of the world. Obviously this will not prevent some of these students from winning election to Congress, but the CRS nonetheless deems it an issue of concern.

Agricultural research gets about a page of consideration, justified by a $2.5 billion yearly outlay for the Department of Agriculture that is traditionally authorized by the omnibus ag bill — an old chestnut that has been giving Congress headaches lately. Bioengineered foods are the sticky issue here, driven by the arrival of a genetically turbocharged salmon from Massachusetts that grows twice as fast as Mother Nature’s version. “Environmental groups and food safety advocates” want the super-salmon banned or at least labeled, while the COMPETES crowd wants it on grocery shelves ASAP. Anyone who agrees that embryology is a lie straight from Hell might be pulled in two different directions by this tasty fish, but the CRS never takes sides.

Next up is the National Institutes of Health, one of the big dogs in research funding, whose $29.3 billion budget for 2013 supports more than 300,000 scientists at 2,500 universities, hospitals, and independent centers. After its budget doubled between 1999 and 2003, NIH felt the chill of a 22 percent plummet from 2003 to 2013 because of what the CRS calls “constraints on discretionary spending.” In 2012, while letting NIH’s funding slide further, Congress reorganized the agency to focus on so-called translational medicine, a bench-to-bedside effort that speeds commercialization. “Some in Congress may have concerns about government overlap with private sector product development activities and whether NIH is expanding its mission beyond basic and applied research into drug development,” the CRS report notes with customary nonchalance, though the next sentence warns that “oversight topics include rules for financial conflict of interest.”

In the nonmedical sciences and engineering, the National Science Foundation’s budget is a huge spigot for university research, especially in mathematics and computer science. But for some reason neither the current number ($7.4 billion a year) nor the constant one is anywhere to be found in the CRS report. Could this be because “some observers prefer to direct any increases in federal funding for research to more purpose- or mission-oriented research than that which is typically funded at NSF” — or, in common academic parlance, that those observers would prefer to “stop paying for a lot of blue-sky b-llsh-t”? We only learn that “other enduring federal policy issues for the NSF focus on the balance between scientific independence and accountability to taxpayers.” Always dicey territory for S&T.

Nanotechnology could be the problem. The next section tells us that since 2001, when outgoing President Bill Clinton launched the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative, Congress has poured $16.1 billion into the nascent field. But “most current applications of nanotechnology are evolutionary in nature, offering incremental improvements in existing products and generally modest economic and societal benefits.” That is, things are moving like molasses. The only nano-successes the CRS spotlights are “in automobile bumpers, cargo beds, and step-assists to reduce weight, increase resistance to dents and scratches, and eliminate rust; in clothes to increase stain- and wrinkle-resistance; and in sporting goods to improve performance,” all of which sound like stuff that used to be advertised in the back pages of Popular Mechanics. Legislation to reauthorize the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 hasn’t even been enacted since 2008. Something seems to be awry here, but the CRS would never be blunt about it.

This brings us to the center of the report, where the 800-pound gorilla of the S&T jungle, the Department of Defense, resides. The section opens with a classic CRS truism (“Science and technology play an important role in national defense”) to introduce the “roughly $68 billion” Pentagon budget, which is “the single largest research and development program in the federal government.” Why roughly? Probably because it is next to impossible to pinpoint every element of the most gargantuan military budget lines. More than 82 percent of the department’s fortune goes to the development and testing of weapons. About $2 billion supports basic research, mostly in mathematics and materials. “Developers may be overly optimistic about what can be accomplished in a given amount of time and with a given amount of funds,” the CRS observes coolly, in what is perhaps a wink toward seven decades of bazillion-dollar weapons that never worked as advertised. “Congress has established a number of programs over the last few years to address these concerns” and “may choose to examine how effectively [they] achieve their objectives.” Or, if past is prelude, not.

The report then coasts downhill through poor old NASA, where “projected funding increases have not occurred” and “the cost of planned human spaceflight activities may mean less funding for other NASA missions,” which has been the case since John Glenn was a pup. Regarding “climate change,” a term preferred in the report over “global warming,” we learn that members of Congress will consider legislation that will either “prohibit the Administration from regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” or “establish new federal programs to reduce GHG emissions.” There’s your choice.

So, on to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which, despite an appropriation of $3.4 billion for R&D back in 2009, does not yet happen on a commercial industrial scale anywhere in the United States. CCS’s conceptual opposite is called geoengineering, which, rather than reduce man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, would try to change the natural energy balance of the planet — by somehow blocking the sun, say. Geoengineering is widely looked upon as a job for Superman, but that hasn’t prevented the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology from holding hearings on the subject. “With the possibility that climate change will remain an issue of global concern, Congress may determine whether geoengineering warrants attention,” the CRS report says, through palpably clenched jaw.

Now on down through the Advanced Research Projects Agency — not the famous Defense one that started the Internet, but the Energy one that the House majority wants to scotch. Thereafter, we confront the conundrum of nuclear-fuel reprocessing, the Achilles’ heel of atomic power, which Democratic and Republican presidents have alternately stopped and started since the Carter Administration. And what to do about the “Cape Wind” turbine project in Nantucket Sound, off the coast of Massachusetts, which is spinning nowhere fast? Well, at least the deepwater oil-well blowout-containment system — developed by ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell without taxpayer help, because they don’t need it — has been dutifully tested by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The report reaches its finale with the Department of Homeland Security, which has become much like Defense as far as S&T are concerned. We learn that this bailiwick has grown so big, so fast, since 9/11, with at least ten “components” funding R&D, that oversight is “difficult,” which translates from CRS English as “lousy.” Just maintaining the burgeoning infrastructure of labs and university centers has cut into available research money. Next-generation gear to detect smuggled nuclear material is behind schedule. The $5.6 billion that Congress threw into Project BioShield in 2004, to speed vaccines and drugs against bioterrorism attacks, has run out with not much to show besides a controversial stockpile of anthrax jabs. BioWatch, a sister program to install pathogen aerosol sensors in more than thirty U.S. cities, is also in trouble, with the General Accountability Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Los Angeles Times claiming the sensors don’t work as desired. None of this kind of mishegas has ever slowed down the Pentagon, however, so Homeland Security will probably be just fine as-is.

Cybersecurity is the report’s curtain closer. One can imagine the CRS experts waiting until dawn on the last day of the semester to submit their final draft. It is of necessity so magnificently neutral, so larded with straight-faced statements such as “the federal role in cybersecurity is complex,” that it leaves behind an icy fog. The reader closes the book and heads for the lavatory, suitably mystified by science and technology, as has been the case for most at least since Copernicus proposed, contrary to what anybody could see with his or her own two eyes, that the earth goes around the sun.

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January 2004

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