Scientific research, budget cuts, and DHS

How would a more politically diverse scientific community improve this situation? Sarewitz’s answer:

First, it could foster greater confidence among Republican politicians about the legitimacy of mainstream science. Second, it would cultivate more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge. This could help keep difficult problems like climate change from getting prematurely straitjacketed by ideology. A more politically diverse scientific community would, overall, support a healthier relationship between science and politics.

“A democratic society needs Republican scientists,” Sarewitz concludes. We agree.

2. Science and DHS

Now to something which may be more controversial. The reflections offered above were occasioned by the deep cuts in DHS science and technology budget contained in the proposed FY2012 DHS funding measure (see “House drastically cuts DHS science and technology,” HSNW, 6 June 2011). The measure – H. R. 2017 — was approved by House members last Thursday in a 231-188 vote in which seventeen Democrats joined all but twenty Republicans in supporting it.



The proposed cuts in DHS’s science and technology budget are drastic: the measure cuts DHS’s Science & Technology Directorate’s (S&T) budget by 52 percent — from $827 million to $398 million. Here is a more complete picture of the proposed cuts:

  • The current S&T budget is $827 million
  • The Obama administration has requested $1.2 billion for the science and technology program in fiscal year 2012, which begins on 1 October
  • The House measure allocates only $398 million to S&T for FY2012 – this is 52 percent less than the FY2011 allocation and about 65 percent less than the administration’s request.
  • The S&T reductions are part of a $1.1 billion reduction in DHS’s overall budget — now $43.4 billion
  • The proposed FY2012 DHS budget is $1 billion lower than the FY 2011 funding level — and $3 billion lower than the Obama administration’s request

The cuts will have consequences, because if you have less money for science and technology, you can do less scientific and technological research. DHS officials have said that the decrease in S&T’s budget will wipe out dozens of programs, stalling the development of technologies for:

  • Border protection
  • Detection of bio-hazards
  • Cargo screening
  • In addition, the cuts will impact research into domestic IED detection, leaving mass transit vulnerable to attacks

The reactions to H. R. 2017 were divided along party lines. “Providing for critical national security measures is a funding priority, and I’m pleased we’ve done so expediently while still cutting spending to more sustainable levels,” AFP quotes Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky), who chairs the committee that oversees DHS’s budget, to say.


Democrats denounced the cuts, calling them counter-productive. “This bill is simply an assault against the progress we’ve made protecting the homeland over the past ten years,” said Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel.

We should quickly make the following points:

  • The growing national debt is a threat the U.S. well being and security, and must be addressed. There are only two ways to address the debt issue: the government must reduce spending, or it must take in more money, or both. There is no other way to shrink the deficit.
  • Every government program must be thoroughly examined to see whether there is a justification to continue it — or continue it at the current level of funding. Homeland security programs should not be exempt from such an examination.
  • Reasonable men and women may differ on the relevant issues: what is the nature of the homeland security threats the United States is facing; what are the best – and most cost effective —ways to meet these threats; can every last research initiative at S&T be convincingly justified?

Our worries about the proposed cuts in the funding of S&T have to do with the nature – the unpredictable nature – of scientific discovery. Scientific discoveries cannot be predicted or made to order. Often they are the result of accident and happenstance: scientists build a research program to find X – and while engaging in the effort to find X, they stumble on Y. They then realize the Y – which no one had anticipated or predicted – is truly earth shattering in its implications and applications.

Scientific research thus must have some redundancy and some elbow room – and at least three types of freedom: freedom to deviate from the original path, freedom to do non-linear things, and freedom to head into a scientific cul-de- sac and come back. To an outsider, these redundancies and freedoms may look like waste and profligacy, but there is no other way to do science.

Which brings back to the earlier discussion about politics and science, and to these two points.

  • We should accept that there is a need – a pressing, urgent need – to tackle the ballooning national debt. We should also accept that there are serious, and legitimate, disagreements among reasonable men and women about the best way to defend the security of the homeland.
  • We should also accept that conservatives are justified in questioning mainstream science, especially since, over the last two decades, the conclusions of mainline scientists on many scientific issues with immediate policy implications dovetailed closely – uncomfortably closely – with the policy preferences of policy makers on the liberal side of the political spectrum.

That said, what we need is to be reassured by those who authored the measure that the very deep cuts in the scientific and technological research budget of DHS have to do with the first point and not with the second point – that these cuts, in other words, are the result of genuine differences of opinion about how best to defend America rather than the result of a more general suspicion of, and even hostility toward, scientific research, whether or not such suspicion and hostility are justified.

Such reassurance is needed because the cuts in R&D mean – inevitably mean — that there will be technologies, products, and solutions which will not be researched and developed – technologies, solutions, and products which may help detect and prevent a terrorist attack, or offer and earlier warning of an approaching tornado, or show how to build a sturdier levee.

Dollars-and-cents decisions in the homeland security realm have serious implications. These decisions, therefore, must be taken for the right reasons.

3. Golden Fleece

If we talk about cutting waste and mismanagement in the government budget, we should recall that no one had a keener eye for government waste and mismanagement than Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin). In 1975 he created the Golden Fleece Award, which was given each year to most outrageously wasteful government program of the year. The award was given until 1988 (Proxmire died in January 1989), and has been revived by the Advisory Board of the Taxpayers for Common Sense in 2000.


Among the recipients of the less-than-coveted Proxmire award:

  • White House Office of Education for spending $219,592 in a “curriculum package” to teach college students how to watch television.
  • U.S. Department of the Army for a 1981 study on how to buy Worcestershire sauce (Federal Specification EE-W-600F).
  • U.S. Postal Service for spending over $3.4 million on a Madison Avenue ad campaign to make Americans write more letters to one another.
  • National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 on a study on love.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for funding a project by psychologist Harris Rubin for $121,000, on developing “some objective evidence concerning marijuana’s effect on sexual arousal by exposing groups of male pot-smokers to pornographic films and measuring their responses by means of sensors attached to their penises,” in 1976.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its $2.5 million study of whether cows’ flatulence contributed to global warming.

As we discuss ways to reduce government spending and cut the federal deficit, we need another Proxmire to point out the more ludicrous – and maddening – purposes for which some government programs use the taxpayer money.

Ben Frankel is the editor of Homeland Security NewsWire