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New president needs new science policy

The Heritage Foundation has compiled a convincing case for the next president to assault the many follies of federal “science.”

The scare quotes are an unfortunate necessity, because Washington’s wanderings into aerospace, medicine, physics, agronomy, climatology, and the like often have more to do with politics than rigorous and impartial pursuit of knowledge.

“Science Policy: Priorities and Reforms for the 45th President,” authored by James Jay Carafano and Jack Spencer, argues that federal R&D “has become ill-fitting and poorly rationalized for today’s needs.” With “little guiding rationale for the appropriate role of government in research and development,” bureaucrats have “exploited science to evade accountability for policy judgements.”

Prior to the 1940s, federal involvement in science was gloriously small. But World War II, quickly followed by the Cold War, saw R&D appropriations soar. NASA is perhaps the most visible entity. And many are aware of nuclear-bomb national laboratories such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. Far fewer Americans are cognizant of the full slate of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, a list that includes the Center for Communications and Computing, Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute, Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, and Software Engineering Institute.

In 2013, federal R&D cost taxpayers $127.3 billion. Top recipients included the Pentagon, the Department of Health and Human Services, NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce. (“National defense,” in all its forms, grabbed 51.1 percent of the total.)

Money well spent? Not to Carafano and Spencer: “[T]he … government has lacked a clear objective for … science and technology since (the Cold War) ended. Consequently, existing infrastructure (most notably the national labs) and government spending are poorly rationalized and utilized today.” The billions of dollars annually appropriated have “actually distorted private-sector investment,” with “16 laws and executive orders attempting to encourage the transfer of federal R&D to the private sector” since 1980. (Results have been unimpressive.)

Another example: the DOD’s pursuit of “green” energy. The Navy “has invested millions of dollars in biofuels that clearly meet a political objective to ‘jump-start’ a domestic biofuel economy rather than meet a strategic advantage.”

The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), created by Congress in 1976, is charged with providing the president with “advice on the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of the issues that require attention at the highest levels of Government.” Carafano and Spencer aren’t impressed, calling it an office “whose purpose is unclear and whose capabilities are largely redundant with what the President is able to, and already does, access through his executive agencies and through his own advisory committees.” Even the Congressional Research Service is skeptical of the OSTP, asking, in a recent report, if its role is to “serve as an advocate and voice of the President,” “make the President aware of the views” of the science and technology community, provide the director’s “personal view,” or “a combination of the three?”

Since it doesn’t “provide anything in service to the President that specially appointed committees might not also accomplish,” Heritage’s researchers boldly recommend elimination of the OSTP.

In its final passage, “Science Policy: Priorities and Reforms for the 45th President” tackles regulations. “Nearly every executive agency must develop and compile the underlying science to justify regulatory action.” But how solid — and visible — are the facts behind D.C.’s never-ending stream of mandates and rules? The record isn’t great.

Carafano and Spencer cite the EPA’s 2015 tightening of standards for ground-level ozone. The eco-bureaucracy “has failed to address glaring discrepancies with the rule’s … science and has even misrepresented data from its own scientists.” To this day, the EPA refuses to release the “research” it used to issue a tougher metric, despite an estimated regulatory cost of $90 billion a year. Even a subpoena from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has gone unanswered.

“The Founders,” Carafano and Spencer note, “provided for little more in science and technology policy than standardizing weights and measures, a census, and intellectual property rights.” Those strict limits might not make sense in the 21st century, but what we’ve got now is too big and too wasteful.

Downsize the science bureaucracy. Scrap the OSTP. Introduce “strict … transparency and integrity to regulatory science.” Wishful thinking for Clinton or Trump. But smart policy for a future president who values both taxpayers and intellectual integrity.

Former Nevadan D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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