Issues in Science and Technology, Online A Publication of National Academy of Sciences National Academy of Engineering Institute of Medicine University of Texas at Dallas
  • Home
  • Back Issues
  • Search


From the Hill

Debate over meaning of "sound" science heats up

Scientific research has played a critical but not always clear role in recent debates over energy policy, with advocates on all sides of the issues marshaling "sound science" to defend their position against the "junk science" of their opponents. The battles have been particularly heated recently, with the Bush administration's support of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada as well as its support of oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

Since 1982, the government has been evaluating the feasibility of Yucca Mountain as the permanent storage site for the nation's high-level radioactive waste. According to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who has stressed the importance of "sound science" in deciding Yucca Mountain's future, the suitability of the site is supported by more than $4 billion and 20 years of scientific research.

However, opponents of the site, including environmentalists, some scientists, and Nevada's governor and congressional delegation, have questioned whether the time and money spent are valid indicators of the quality of the science. In a recent article in Science, for instance, Rodney Ewing of the University of Michigan and Allison Macfarlane of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that "political pressure to resolve the issue . . . now drives the decisionmaking process at the expense of the science required to support this important public policy decision," and concluded that "moving ahead without first addressing the outstanding scientific issues will only continue to marginalize the role of science." By contrast, the Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), International Atomic Energy Agency, and other groups have stated that although some technical issues remain, the science is sound enough to support moving to the next stage of the development process.

Regardless of the quality of the science, the political pressure to move forward on Yucca Mountain is enormous. Not only are many of the nation's nuclear power plants, which are scattered across the country, running out of onsite storage space, but some of them are also suing DOE to recover storage costs incurred since 1998, when DOE had originally contracted to begin removing the waste. According to current projections, the Yucca Mountain repository will open in 2010 at the earliest. As a result, both the administration and Congress, with the exception of the Nevada delegation, have strong political and economic motivations to select the site regardless of the remaining scientific questions.

The House recently voted to override the Nevada governor's veto, 306-117, and the Senate is likely to follow suit. If it does, DOE will be able to proceed with submitting a licensing application to the NRC, at which point further evaluations and public comment as well as further debates over the soundness of the science will take place.

The issue of whether or not to allow drilling in ANWR was one of the most contentious issues in the debate over the Senate energy bill, which was passed on April 25, almost 10 months after passage of a House energy bill. The Senate bill would continue the ban on drilling anywhere in the 19-million-acre refuge, whereas the House bill authorizes drilling on 2,000 acres along the refuge's coastal area. Resolving this difference in conference will be, at best, a painful process.

Critics argue that drilling will harm local populations of caribou, polar bears, and other arctic wildlife, some of which are important economic resources for native groups. Proponents counter that new, low-impact drilling techniques will cause minimal damage to the refuge and that the project will significantly boost the U.S. energy supply and raise the standard of living of native groups who own rights to some of the oil-rich land. All of the groups, regardless of their position, have attempted to use scientific research to bolster their positions, and each has given the research its own particular spin.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 4 billion to 12 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil are buried in the refuge, most of them in the northwest corner of the coastal area near the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Although these estimates have been mostly immune to such debates, estimates of the potential impact of drilling on wildlife, which are less certain and more emotionally charged, have become focal points in the controversy. In early April, for example, USGS released a report suggesting that ANWR's wildlife would be adversely affected by drilling under a number of different development scenarios. The report appeared to contradict earlier testimony by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who responded to its release by requesting a supplementary report. That report, completed in less than a week, analyzed the effect on caribou populations of drilling limited to the 2,000-acre footprint specified in the House energy bill, a scenario not included in the original study.

When the supplementary report, which concluded that limited development would have no adverse impact on caribou, was released, proponents of drilling saw it as further evidence that limited development would be environmentally harmless. Opponents, however, saw it as evidence that the administration was manipulating the scientific process to support its political and economic goals.

Doubling of NSF budget over five years proposed

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-Mich.) have proposed a National Science Foundation (NSF) reauthorization bill that would set the agency on a track to double its budget over the next five years.

Calling NSF research critically important to the economy, national security, health, and education, Boehlert presented the bill (H.R. 4664) at a May 7 press conference alongside a bipartisan group of cosponsors, including the ranking member of the research subcommittee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.). The legislation would provide annual 15 percent increases for NSF over the next three years, boosting its budget from $4.8 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2002 to $7.3 billion in FY 2005. If the budget continued on this trajectory, it would reach $9.6 billion in FY 2007, twice the total for FY 2002.

"Congress has quite properly committed to doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health," Boehlert said. "But NIH does not and cannot fund the full range of research activities the nation needs to remain prosperous and healthy. NSF has the broadest research mission of any federal science agency and the clearest educational mission. It needs the funding that goes with that expansive-- and expensive--mandate."

The funding provided by the bill would be spread fairly evenly across the agency, with mathematics and nanotechnology research singled out for particularly large increases. The legislation would also encourage greater transparency in procedures for selecting major research projects and better cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in funding astronomy research.

The scientific community has responded enthusiastically to the proposal. Earlier in 2002, the Coalition for National Science Funding, which represents more than 70 scientific and engineering societies and universities, recommended a 15 percent budget increase for NSF in FY 2003.

The bill's aims, however, cannot be achieved without the support of the Appropriations Committee, and key House appropriators have not embraced the goal of doubling NSF funding.

In the Senate, on the other hand, the idea has widespread support. Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the chair and ranking member of the subcommittee that allocates funds for NSF, have lobbied hard in recent years for more NSF funding. In 2000, more than 40 senators signed a letter circulated by Mikulski and Bond supporting the doubling of the agency's budget.

The Bond-Mikulski push follows Senate passage in 2000 of an authorization bill to double federal funding for all civilian R&D and a January 2001 recommendation by the Hart-Rudman commission on national security to double the entire federal R&D budget by 2010. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) recently called for doubling civilian R&D funding.

Asked whether the Office of Management and Budget supports his bill, Boehlert said that he is involved in discussions with the White House and expects "no major difficulty moving forward on the course that we're charting."

Government to boost scrutiny of foreigners studying science

The U.S. government has taken some steps to close loopholes in the immigration process that apparently allowed some of the September 11 terrorists to enter the country. They include additional scrutiny of foreigners studying in science fields.

On May 14, President Bush signed into law a border security and immigration bill that, among other things, will require tamper-proof visas and passports for all foreign visitors as well as the use of biometric methods for detecting potential terrorists. On May 10, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a new regulation to implement the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS will replace the paper system for tracking foreign students with an electronic system.

The new SEVIS database will be launched on a voluntary basis beginning in July; full compliance must be achieved by January 30, 2003. Information to be collected on foreign students includes port of entry, arrival on campus, residential address, and field of study. Although universities and colleges are more or less satisfied with the new electronic system, some concern has been expressed over whether there is enough time to meet the deadline.

In addition to using SEVIS for tracking the comings and goings of foreign students, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recently revealed plans to institute an additional level of scrutiny of students who plan to study science and engineering in the United States. A new Interagency Panel on Advanced Science Security (IPASS) will provide a specialized review of F (student), J (postdoctoral), and M (vocational) visas for students pursuing scientific study.

In a briefing to scientific and educational organizations, an OSTP representative said that the goal is "to ensure that international students or visiting scholars do not acquire 'uniquely available' and 'sensitive' education and training at U.S. institutions and facilities that can be used against us in a terrorist attack."

IPASS, which will be composed of representatives from defense, civilian, immigration, and intelligence agencies, will review visa applications. Criteria for determining whether a student should be given an IPASS inspection will first be established by the Immigration and Naturalization Service using the Technology Alert List and country of origin. IPASS will then analyze students according to a series of variables to determine patterns. The variables include the student's educational background, training, and work experience; country of origin; whether the field of study is uniquely available in the United States and sensitive; and whether research conducted elsewhere at the chosen school--beyond the student's major--could have national security implications.

IPASS is still in the conceptual phase. Issues that need to be resolved include defining "uniquely available" and "sensitive"; how to best implement the IPASS review in an efficient manner; and mechanisms for determining intent to do harm.


"From the Hill" is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/spp) in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center's bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.