Close Reading — March 10, 2014, 3:55 pm

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wayne Biddle:

How-to December 27, 2013, 8:00 am

Make Your Own Teeth

On aging without dental insurance

From the May 2004 issue

The passion of the Rumsfeld

Congress stages an ordeal by rubber stamp

From the January 2004 issue

The world’s biggest tab

Banqueting upon borrowing in the nation’s capital

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Post
Perhaps the World Ends Here·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Climate disaster at Wounded Knee

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

An eight-foot minke whale washed ashore on the Thames, the third beaching of a dead whale on the river in two months.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today