House Sciences To Push Policy Reform

The GOP weighs in with -- surprise! multiyear budgets, tax incentives, and environmental "cost benefits" analysis -- though at least they're talking about technology policy

The incoming Republican chairman of the House Science Committee has a battery of proposals for the new year, some of which would significantly change national technology policy - if Republicans can get them through a Congress already flooded with reform proposals.

Rep. Robert Walker, who will replace Democrat Rep. George Brown at the helm of the Science Committee, said his immediate priorities are passing a bill to promote research on hydrogen fuel, and an overhaul of government methods for assessing the risk posed by toxic wastes, nuclear reactors and other products.

The hydrogen-research bill failed to win final approval this year, and the risk-assessment measure is part of the Republicans' "Contract With America" manifesto.

Walker will also hold January hearings on national technology policy.

"What I'd like to do is engage in a dialogue with the American people, the science community, and with my colleagues which reasserts the value of science as a means for bringing our country a future of substantial growth built on new [technological] discoveries."

Walker said he will press for multiyear funding for many science agencies, including NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy.

Multiyear programming has long been praised by some Republicans a way to reduce funding turbulence and congressional micro-management of research programs.

Walker also called for consolidation of the government's non-defense research programs under a Department of Science, Space, Energy, and Technology.

Other proposals made by Walker include creating tax revenues for commercial space ventures, boosting the role of science in education, and keeping the National Science Foundation in basic, rather than applied, science.

Walker said he has begun talks with the House Ways and Means Committee to design tax incentives for commercial space investment.

This is a long list of goals, few of which can be achieved in the short run, said observers. Congressional Republicans have given their highest priority to the "Contract With America," leaving little time or energy for other policy changes.

However, Walker's support of industry research was welcomed by Robert Park, with the Washington-based American Physical Society. Walker's support of the space station is unwise, however, said Park. "That's a total waste of money and has nothing to do with science," he said.

Another area of contention is the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, said Park. Top Republican officials have called for killing the agency, saying its demise would save $200 million over five years.

Walker is undecided on the issue. Brown, the chief Democrat on the science panel, is urging preservation of the office.

Another potential controversy may arise from NASA's poorly funded Mission To Planet Earth program to study environmental issues and the long-running debate over atmospheric Ozone levels, said Park. Walker called for hearings on both early this year.

The Senate's more cautious approach may cause some conflict with the aggressive House Republicans, said Park.

"They are in this rosy glow of victory now. But the splits will show up later," he said. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana is likely to take the leading science slot chairman on the Senate subcommittee on science, technology and space.

But because Senate Republicans have not officially chosen their committee chairman, it is premature to discuss his preferred policies, said his spokeswoman Susan Zimmerman.

Walker's policy statements followed announcements of a committee reorganization that will kill off the investigations subcommittee. The four new subcommittees are Space and Aeronautics, Basic Research, Energy and Environment, and Technology.

The heads of the subcommittees have not yet been named. The reorganized subcommittees "reflect what the true principles of this committee will be over the next couple of years," said Walker.

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