WASHINGTON _ Top Clinton Administration officials defendedfederal science and technology programs before the new Republicanchiefs of Congress on Friday and were told to brace themselves forthe coming round of budget cuts.

At a hearing of the House Science Committee, now chaired by Rep.Robert Walker, of Pennsylvania, Clinton appointees argued forcontinued spending on government-led science programs whileRepublicans questioned whether tax and regulatory incentives mightnot be a better way to spur technological innovation.

Jack Gibbons, Clinton's assistant for Science and Technology Policyand director of the White House Office of Science and TechnologyPolicy (OSTP), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)administrator Carol Browner, National Science Foundation (NSF)director Neal Lane and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown testifiedbefore the committee during a hearing with the lofty title, "TheFuture of Science." But one Republican committee staffer who askednot to be identified summarized the event differently: "They need tojustify their existence," he said.

Both the economic philosophies and concrete decisions of ScienceCommittee members and their conservative chairman, Walker, willdeeply affect these agencies since their budgets, in whole or part, areauthorized here.

OSTP's Gibbons warned that proposals to fund the Contract withAmerica could lead to a "wholesale, devastating retreat" frominvestments in science and technology. He also charged thatRepublican budget cut proposals could mean that, "we will not beable to invest in research that could ensure this nation's continuedpreeminence in industries dependent on biotechnology orinformation and communications technologies."

Despite the harsh words, Gibbons insisted to reporters after thehearing that there is "enormous bipartisan support for science."Science committee chairman Walker added a few harsh words of hisown: "Nothing in the Contract cuts science. That's an invalidextrapolation."

Friday's hearing highlighted the chasm between Democratic andRepublican approaches to fostering scientific advances and boostingindustry.

For example, one program squarely in the cross hairs forRepublicans aiming to cut government is the National Institute ofStandards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program (ATP).The ATP is a cost-sharing initiative to form government-industrypartnerships that focus on "high-priority" technologies. It has longbeen a contentious, partisan issue in the Science Committee(formerly known as the Science, Space & Technology Committee).

One "focus area" recently selected by the ATP for a $145 millioninfusion of cash was development of DNA diagnostic tools. LastOctober, two biotechnology companies _ Affymetrix Inc. andMolecular Dynamics Inc. _ were awarded a five-year ATP grantworth $32 million for a joint research venture to develop a miniatureintegrated nucleic acid diagnostic device. Twelve other companiesalso won funding in the biotechnology focus area.

Gibbons noted that past Republican budget proposals have targetedATP and other programs like it, as well as singling out the NSF for a50 percent budget cut (currently, NSF gets $3.2 billion annually). "Ifyou look at the arithmetic in the Contract with America, you findthat there would be, over the next four or five years, essentially ashutdown of many, if not most of our science and technologyactivities," said Gibbons.

ATP To Bridge `Valley Of Death"

The ATP was conceived, according to Gibbons, to bridge what hecalled the "Valley of Death" that lies between scientific discoveryand the marketplace. He predicted that opposing viewpoints on howbest to cross that valley _ using tax and regulatory incentives or aproactive government technology policy _ will generate "a lot ofdebate" in coming months.

Walker conceded he is "not a fan" of the ATP, which he says haswandered beyond its original mandate and gives much of its moneyto "Fortune 500 companies." (Commerce Secretary Brown insistedthat 50 percent of ATP awards have gone to small businesses or jointventures led by small businesses.)

"In talking to biotech firms in my district _ and I have a number ofmajor biotech firms and some that are emerging _ they tell me thatthe capital gains tax cut is actually more important than anygovernment program that we could possibly think up," said Brown.

"So, one of the things you have to look at is, what works here? Whatdoes get you the best science, what gives you the best research anddevelopment base? In some cases, those are going to be more directincentives through things like the tax code rather than the creation ofgovernment spending sprees."

Act Could Freeze Risk Assessment Analyses

Another point of contention at Friday's hearing was a Republicanproposal to change the way government agencies perform riskassessment analyses. EPA administrator Browner warned thatprovisions contained in the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act(one of 10 bills that constitute the Contract with America) could"freeze" the science of risk assessment, clog the courts with complexscientific cases and lead to "inappropriate delays" for newregulations.

But Republican backers of the bill, which is aimed at providingregulatory relief for American business, may not be sympathetic toBrowner's complaints. Although Browner insisted that EPA policiesare "science-based," some have argued that the agency has failed inthis respect.

Former FDA official Henry Miller has been one outspoken critic ofthe EPA, calling its biotechnology regulatory policies "the mostegregious of all" in the "[Clinton] administration's broader war onbiotech." Miller has even had a paper on the subject, called "A needto reinvent biotechnology regulation at the EPA," accepted by thepeer-reviewed journal, Science.

Walker proposed at Friday's hearing that the assembled agencychiefs appear regularly before the Science Committee. "What you'regoing to see here is a Science Committee chairman who's committedto promoting science as the way that we address the economy in thefuture," promised Walker. "But I am not necessarily bound to all thethings that this Congress has put into place over the last 40 years."

"I would like to see science resources in the totality of the economyexpanded. That doesn't necessarily mean government programs.Within the context of a nearly $6 trillion economy, I believe weought to be doing vastly more than we're now doing in science,research, development and technology. I want to see us adoptprograms at the federal level that create incentives for that expansionto take place." n

-- Lisa Piercey Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.