Rep. Brown: A Department of Science and Technology?

As a freshman congressman in 1963, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) was an early opponent of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Last year, he helped lead a successful congressional drive for a moratorium on testing of experimental anti-satellite weapons and supported a pledge by university physics students and professors to refuse funding from the Strategic Defense Initiative program. Throughout his career on Capitol Hill, in fact, Brown, while representing a district heavily dependent on

February 9, 1987

As a freshman congressman in 1963, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) was an early opponent of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Last year, he helped lead a successful congressional drive for a moratorium on testing of experimental anti-satellite weapons and supported a pledge by university physics students and professors to refuse funding from the Strategic Defense Initiative program. Throughout his career on Capitol Hill, in fact, Brown, while representing a district heavily dependent on military spending, has been a consistent critic of US military buildup programs.

As an influential member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, he also has helped to shape U.S. policy in those areas. Brown, who received his BA in physics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1946, also serves on the Agriculture Committee. He was interviewed on Capitol Hill January 19 by Tabitha M. Powledge, editor of The Scientist. The following is an edited version of their talk.

BROWN: We're going to look at the possibility of introducing a proposal to establish a department of science and technology. Others have proposed something similar, but haven't said what its structure should be. We're going to propose a very modest, almost minimal, department.

Q: Not at Cabinet level?
BROWN: It would be at Cabinet level, but we'd have a fall-back position leaving it as an agency instead. It would include the Bureau of Standards, the National Technical Information Service and some technology-transfer functions. We'll have some hearings on it to see if it will fly. With the support that's come from the administration, I think there's a good possibility that we might be able to do it.

Q: Do you expect those hearings to happen fairly soon, this spring?
BROWN: Probably after the budget authorization hearings. This spring is a possibility. If we can get a minimal structure established, in future years we can look at making it a full-fledged department. Each change would have to be considered on its merits, but some of the obvious changes we might make would be to include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and some of the basic research and technology applications work at the Department of Energy. This administration has talked about abolishing the Department of Energy. Merging the functions they want to keep, particularly fundamental research, into a Department of Science and Technology would be compatible with the administration's goal. But I anticipate that most of these possible changes would occur after this administration has left office.

Q: What issues do you think the subcommittee on space science and applications should be addressing?
BROWN: There are a number of important issues. They include oversight of the shuttle program to make sure the replacement shuttle is produced in a timely and economical fashion, that work to add safety features to the existing shuttles is done in the best possible way, that we have the strongest possible assurances that the program will be safe.

I also am seriously concerned about the erosion of the NASA R&D program, which includes a number of areas: space science projects; space applications projects, such as the advanced communications technology satellite; planetary exploration; cooperative research with other countries. I want to make sure that these are maintained at as healthy a level as possible—and that the overall NASA program doesn't become completely subordinated to military requirements. Even within NASA you're finding that the military is preempting the share of the shuttle manifest; it has now changed its mind and wants to have a roving space station, and this is causing some consternation among our allies.


Q: A bill to strengthen university infrastructure, introduced last year by Rep. Donald Fuqua (D-Fla), now retired, went nowhere. What should Congress be doing?
BROWN: Mr. Fuqua's bill was a good bill; I was a co-sponsor of it. We do have to do something about strengthening the university research infrastructure. The condition of our laboratories is abysmal. That issue is not going to go away. We're spending a lot of money on university research. We're looking at infusions of money for high-energy physics, for example. The superconducting supercollider is a huge project. We shouldn't be thinking about that in isolation. We're not going to be able to train future generations of high energy physicists if we don't do something about laboratory facilities.


Q: Congress is, of course, expected to reduce the amount of money for SDI research that's requested in the new budget. What's your guess about the level of funding Congress will end up approving?
BROWN: The most probable scenario is a level budget.

Q: Do you think there is any chance at all of the administration striking some kind of arms control deal with the Soviets that will drastically limit or reduce SDI research?
BROWN: It's been my hope throughout this administration that they weren't totally opposed to arms control. I'm now almost of the opinion, when I hear the statements emanating from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle and others, that their bottom line is that we're better off without arms control. Up to now, results indicate that this is the viewpoint that has prevailed with the president. If Nancy Reagan or Secretary of State George Shultz or somebody else can persuade him that his place in history will be more secure with a good, sound arms control agreement, it might be reversed. I'm skeptical that it will happen.

Q: So people who do research with SDI money don't need to toss and turn in their beds at night?
BROWN: I think they're assured of a fairly high level of SDI research under any administration. This SDI question is a stumbling block to arms control. The Congress itself will make an effort to define the acceptable limits of SDI research. We will not accept the Russian position that the acceptable program has to be laboratory research, which is in itself a nondefined term. I think we can lay out a framework for what is acceptable research and what is nonacceptable deployment. If we do that, and write it into law, this may in effect force the administration into an acceptable arms control agreement.

Q: Is that likely to happen this year?
BROWN: It's very possible. The technical problem of defining an acceptable level of SDI research is not all that great. Reasonable people on both sides could do that. The negotiators are not, and certainly the president is not, capable of delineating that. His scientific advisers should be, but I don't think they're getting through to him. I think they're being filtered through those who basically don't want an arms control agreement. But if Congress is to pursue that route, it could be included in the military authorization bill, which we'll take up in the first few months of this year.


Q: It's being said that the Iran-Contra affair is going to preoccupy Congress for a while. Are you concerned that it will affect congressional action on the science budget and science policy?
BROWN: There's no denying that the Iran-Contra investigation will be a distraction. I do not think, however, that it will distract the attention of more than about 10 percent of the members of Congress. Its impact will really depend on how widespread the network of people seeking to circumvent the express will of the Congress is. It could be very distracting if there's a lot of them, because the Congress is going to want to identify them and take proper steps to keep that from happening again. But I don't see this as providing large obstacles to the Congress' conducting its business pretty much as usual, including the science budget.


Q: The House Science and Technology committee's Task Force on Science Policy concluded two years of hearings last spring. When will its report be out?
BROWN: The report has to go through a lot of reviews, so I don't expect to see it out before midyear. And I think it will pretty much follow the agenda of the hearings. The number of topics covered is voluminous. As an example, it may deal with institutional change, such as whether we need a Department of Science and Technology. I don't know how the report will come out on that. The new chairman, Robert Roe (D-NJ), doesn't support that, but the report might indicate the possibility of moving in this direction under certain conditions; it's just impossible to say at this point. My guess is that it will point to the need for additional study. Unfortunately, that's all too common today. The additional study may be focused on the problem of technology and the contribution it makes to competitiveness. There's some thought that we may try to undertake that subject during this coming Congress.

Q: That's on the agenda for the committee under the new chairman?
BROWN: Yes. The science policy report deliberately avoided addressing that issue. Also, in his chairman's report, which he issued just before he retired last fall, Mr. Fuqua suggested that the science committee should be much more vigorous in looking at the impacts of regulation on science, which is not a bad idea either.


Q: William Graham has kept a very low pro-file since his appointment last fall as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. What's your assessment of his performance so far?
BROWN: I really don't feel that I'm in a position to assess Dr. Graham's performance, because I have so little basis on which to do it. In three months, after we have had an opportunity to see him appear before the committee a few times, and have other information, it will be possible to make a better evaluation.

It was my view long before Dr. Graham came into this position that the president was not giving the weight to the science adviser that I would personally have preferred. That was indicated by what happened to the OSTP budget. It's been emasculated. And of course, Dr. George Keyworth, who was an outstanding man, still focused a good deal of his energy, possibly most of it, on the military side. He came from the background of a weapons physicist, and I think he was more concerned about science in the Department of Defense than he was in the overall picture of the country. That's not intended to be derogatory because I admire the way in which he defended the importance of supporting high-quality basic research.


Q: What can scientists do to shape science policy? Should they even try?
BROWN: Oh, by all means. As citizens, particularly citizens of an elite status, they have a high responsibility to influence and interact with Congress. Not influence in a derogatory sense, but in a democracy we have a responsibility to shape the way we're governed. Scientists have that responsibility to a very great extent.

How do they exercise it? Well, several ways. They should be concerned with what's happening in their communities, meaning everything from the neighborhood to the world community. It wouldn't take too much of their time to be good citizens. What they would find, if they did that, was that they've got problems in their own communities, problems with education and other areas where they could make a contribution. One of our great problems today is the job we're doing at scientific and engineering and mathematics education at the elementary levels. Why shouldn't a scientist, aware of the importance of this, have some input into what's being done in his community to improve the quality of that education?

When you get to the question of the federal government and the role it should play in supporting particular fields of science, here's where I think scientists should be working very strongly within their own disciplinary structures, within their own professional organizations, and in interdisciplinary organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Scientists should be working actively to make their organizations as strong and healthy as possible. As a part of that, they should also make sure that there are channels of communication between those organizations and the structure of the federal government, both the legislative and the executive branch. There are mechanisms for doing that, appropriate mechanisms.

The scientific community is no more unified in its views as to what to lobby for than the general public is. So there's a problem delineating those areas in which there's some community of interest, some agreement about what to lobby for. I saw the social scientists get together very quickly to lobby for adequate funding for social science research, which was threatened with extinction for a while. The lobbying activities of that collective organization of social scientists was extremely useful and desirable, and was good exercise for them. It helped the Congress, and it probably helped turn around that situation. Is it possible to get other groups of scientists together around issues that are not quite as akin to the question of survival? Can you get scientists together to lobby on other social issues, on questions of war and peace? That's much more difficult.


Q: You've been in Congress a very long time, working on science virtually all of that time. But your last couple of reelection campaigns have been fairly tough. How much longer do you hope to remain in Congress?
BROWN: I have no plans to remain in Congress for any specified period of time. I make the decision whether to run for another two-year term at an appropriate time before the election comes up. I was very frustrated and thinking seriously of retiring two years ago. But right now, I'm in a slightly more upbeat mood about running for election in 1988.

Q: I think all the Democrats are.
BROWN: It doesn't have only to do with partisan matters. Of course, I have been somewhat frustrated under this administration, and I hope I would be less frustrated under a Democratic administration.

But I think we're in a period of excitement as far as science policy and technology are concerned. I think that we're going to see an elevation of priorities in those areas. There'll be an opportunity for us to achieve preeminence in space, and in industrial competitiveness, and high-energy physics and agricultural research and a number of other things that really are exciting to me.

I'm at the point where I feel I can be somewhat more effective in making a contribution than I could have been five or 10 years ago. What keeps me running again is this question: Is it interesting, exciting, and challenging? It's no longer significant to me from the standpoint of money or prestige. But I like to wake up weighing the question of whether I can do something innovative, exciting, interesting, and make a contribution. If I decide sometime later on this year that I can, I'll probably run for another term.

Popular Now

  1. Humans Never Stopped Evolving
    Features Humans Never Stopped Evolving

    The emergence of blood abnormalities, an adult ability to digest milk, and changes in our physical appearance point to the continued evolution of the human race.

  2. An Aging-Related Effect on the Circadian Clock
  3. Marching for Science, from Berlin to Sydney
  4. Opinion: Is a Clone Really Born at Age Zero?
Business Birmingham