Bentsen’s record on scientific issues suggests he may be primarily motivated by economic concerns— in particular, growth for Texas. But those interests have coincided with efforts to advance science in three areas—the superconducting supercollider, the R&D tax credit, and continued research on the Stategic Defense Initiative. In fact, Bentsen joined the Senate Com merce, Science and Transportation Committee in 1987, according to a committee staffer, so he could play a larger role in such matters.
Bentsen has been most outspoken on space issues, in large part because of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. In the last two years, he has joined other Democrats in seeking the reinstitution of a National Space Council to set national space policy. That body, which the Reagan administration strongly opposes, was eliminated by President Nixon in 1973. Last year Bentsen won authorization, but no money, for a bill to provide competitive grants to universities to encourage graduate students in the space sciences. Since then, NASA administrator James Fletcher has promised that at least $8 million of the agency’s 1989 science budget will go to the so-called Bentsen Space Grant College and Fellowship Program.
Bentsen is also involved in salvaging funds for the space station. Last year he backed the transfer of $600 million from the Department of Defense budget to NASA; this year he’s lobbying for the earmarking of $600 million in defense funds as the military’s contribution to the $30 billion station, which Reagan has recently dubbed Freedom.
Since Texas is one of the seven finalists in the search for a superconducting supercollider site, Bentsen is, not surprisingly, an advocate of the $5 billion project. Department of Energy officials plan to announce their selection of a preferred site around election day.
Superconductivity is another topic that has attracted Bentsen’s " attention. He argued successfully for an increase of $6 million in the upcoming National Science Foundation budget for superconductivity research, a 30% increase over the $20 million now being spent. Although he’s not known for fiery polemics, earlier this year Bentsen railed on the Senate floor against those academic construction earmarks, known as “pork-barrel projects,” that sidestep the traditional review process by gaining support directly from Congress. He’s also been a chief sponsor of the 20% R&D tax credit for hightech industries, which proponents hope to extend beyond its scheduled December 31 expiration and restore to its original level of 25%.
Science policy analysts warn against expecting Bentsen to play a crucial role in shaping the party’s stance on science-related issues. Jerry Grey, director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, doubts that Dukaikis will compromise his opposition to SDI and the space station, but Grey believes that Bentsen’ s voice may be heard on the vice presidentled National Space Council. “It seems like an obvious step for Dukakis to take,” Grey says.
More significant, Grey suggests, is the financial clout Bentsen wields within the space and defense industry in his role as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “Implicit in [Bentsen’s influence] is money—which shifts the party platform toward industry,” Grey notes.