Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Science Political Action Committee (PAC).

Chris Mooney, writing on Sciencegate, anew blog started by the editors of Seed magazine, mentions an email they received from Bob Palmer (House Science Committee Democratic staff director) about a Science PAC (political action commitee). I am posting the email in its entirety below...it shows some interesting facts and the thinking of the political and scientific communities...

Hi Chris:

Thought I'd drop you a quick note providing some history relating to your postings on a "Science PAC". Please feel free to post or use these remarks in any way you'd like.

Politics is a contact sport which operates by reward and punishment. PAC's are the reward side. Corporate or collective PAC's distribute money to favored candidates. The logistics of organizing a large group of scientists to run a PAC are daunting indeed. Who researches the candidates? Who makes the decisions on distribution? How is the money actually raised without endangering anyone's tax-exempt status? Who organizes a group famous for its quirkiness and individuality?

Interestingly, a few years ago Vern Ehlers (R-MI) organized a "Science PAC" designed to funnel money to supposedly pro-science Republican candidates. Ehlers got some criticism for this. In the end I don't think it ever raised much money from scientists. My guess is that Ehlers got some contributions from the same corporate PAC's who would have donated to him anyway.

So a "Science PAC" has already been tried, albeit probably not in the same way or by the same parties envisioned by your readers.

How about the punishment side? One of the key techniques is the system used by nearly all interest groups (Christian Coalition, Sierra Club, ADA, ACLU, LCV, NARAL, NFIB) -- namely, rating voting records of Members of Congress. These ratings matter. They provide guidance for donors and they may influence voting patterns, especially when Members are informed in advance of a particular vote that it will be "scored" by a particular group.

Scientists have already entered this world of hard-nosed politics. In 1996 a group called "Science Watch" rated all the Members of the House of Representatives based on their Floor votes on 30 key issues affecting science and technology. The issues were selected because they did one or more of the following:

1. favorably or unfavorably impacted the quality review of science,

2. proscribed or prohibited specific types of scientific research,

3. eliminated or increased science needed for improved national decision-making,

4. promoted or curtail science education,

5. directly increased or decreased investment in science.

Science Watch's "Science Scoreboard" was unveiled at a press conference at the National Press Club on September 18, 1996. Science Watch was not a half-baked group. It included Dr. Roland Schmitt and Dr. James Duderstadt (both past Chairmen of the National Science Board), Nobel Laureates Dr. Ken Wilson, Dr. Gertrude Elion, and Dr. Leon Lederman, Dr. D. Allan Bromley (Science Advisor to President G.H.W. Bush), Dr. Eric Bloch (past Director of NSF under President Reagan), and Dr. Martin Apple (Executive Officer of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents).

Although the founding members of Science Watch were equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, the Scoreboard results did not treat the two parties equally. The average score for a Republican House Member, based on percentage of favorable votes, was about 35%. The average Democrat's score was about 75%.

The fall-out from the Scoreboard was predictable. The Republican Chairman of the Science Committee, Bob Walker, attacked the survey as "politicizing science" and noted that "The bottom line of the survey is that if you're a big spender, you get an 'A', but if you're an honest student, do your homework, and make the hard decisions about good science, you fail."

Ranking Democratic Member of the Science Committee, George Brown, said, "I think this is a very useful exercise if it is carried out to its full potential. It will be useless if the scientific community does not take in the information and act on it. The rank and file of people engaged in research aren't well represented and they need such a tool."

Brown's words fell on deaf ears. Establishment science organizations like the Association of American Universities questioned the appropriateness of the Science Watch survey, and the community as a whole never seemed to get the idea.

In the end, the most important legacy of Science Watch was probably to constrain future Republican mischief-making in legislation dealing with science. After the 104th Congress (1995-1996) far fewer contentious scientific issues surfaced in House legislation and far fewer votes were permitted on those issues that were ripe for political organization.

Bob Palmer

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