House Science and Technology Committee Chairman to Continue Charlie Brown Impression

Representative Bart Gordon, entering his last session as chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, announced his plans for the committee in 2010 (H/T ScienceInsider).  Rep. Gordon’s top priorities include a reauthorization of the COMPETES Act, which implements much of President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative and sets federal physical science research funding on a doubling path.  It also established the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, (ARPA-E) an agency focused on high-risk, high-reward research in energy fields.

The other major initiative he mentioned was a reauthorization of NASA.  Given the posturing of this committee over possible changes to President Bush’s space exploration plans, any work here could be a lot more heat than light.  Both committee efforts would allow for a review and possible revision of current action in research support and in space.

As the Committee typically approves a lot of decent bills that go nowhere (of the 37 bills they approved that passed the House, only 2 eventually passed the Senate and became law), this is more of a good intentions list than a predictor of what Congress will actually do (fail to pass a budget on time and even less than you think).  I don’t think this committee is unique in its inability to get House leadership to move on its bills, and it’s certainly in a better position that science and technology bills are in the Senate, where they aren’t the sole focus of a committee.

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Something Else You Won’t See in America That You See in Britain

There’s been a fair amount of press buzz (British, of course) over the recent address by Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat (I don’t think I need to add an -ic here, and mean no offense if I’m wrong on that) Party, at the Royal Society. The Society invited the leaders of each party (Prime Minister Gordon Brown for Labour and David Cameron for the Conservatives/Tories) to speak in the run-up to the general election. That only one of the three has accepted is not a surprise to me (though, as has been noted by some, Brown has spoken about science and technology in other venues). That said, I would have been surprised if the National Academies in the U.S. would have extended an invitation to candidate Obama or candidate McCain, or if either candidate had accepted.

What strikes me as mildly daft is the angle from Nature, that the Liberal Democrats are trying to be the science-friendly party.  That strategy is likely to get votes only from scientists (roughly 5 percent of the total population, and I have no idea what percentage could vote in Parliamentary elections). For a third party likely to have influence only if there’s no clear majority for Labour or the Tories, I don’t think such a narrow appeal is worth their time.  Personally, I think the Liberal Democrats could make inroads beyond scientists by pushing their interest in libel law reform (see the case of Simon Singh to better understand how bad it is in Britain, and how it could impact researchers around the world who publish in Britain).  It was the focus of The Independent‘s coverage of the address, and led the BBC’s report as well.  Listening to the grievances of scientists and engineers is great, but to attract and maintain political attention, the narrow interests of this relatively small group must always be linked to greater goals (so, yes, impact measures will never go away).  The resistance to this is not uniquely British.

So, good on Mr. Clegg for making the speech, an odd mix of personal biography and bromides about science and research supporting economic growth and recovery.  While not nearly as “pro-science” as the scientific press would have us believe, it does take stances on impact measures in research assessment and the sacking of Professor Nutt that are alone among the major U.K. parties in siding with many science advocates.  I caution researchers and others interested in what he says about science not to presume that your preferences (and how those preferences are communicated) reflects with enough of your fellow citizens to translate into election results, much less policy action.