Implications of the Midterm Election for Science

Just to be clear, I should distinguish between my statements as a scientist and my views on “science policy” and politics. This post is more about the latter, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts and views about these issues too.

The US midterm elections never receive as much media attention and as high turnouts as presidential ones. For family reasons or work reasons (because Election Day is not a holiday in the US) or because of disillusionment or apathy or other reasons, typically more than 60% of eligible voters do not vote during midterm elections.

The midterms on Tuesday (November 4th) are nonetheless important. In particular, science-related issues—especially climate change and Ebola—are playing significant roles in political campaigns and referenda on ballots around the country. In addition, the next (114th) Congress will shape federal budgets for basic and applied research in science, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and public outreach, as well as setting budget priorities that could remain in place for years to come.

The Budget Situation

Developing and implementing federal budgets take considerable time and effort. The President and Office of Management and Budget first propose a budget for the next fiscal year (FY), then Congressional appropriations committees negotiate to develop their own budget bills, and then the final bill is executed by the federal agencies. Annual budgets for agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can fluctuate throughout the budget-making process. For example, the House gave the NSF a 2.1% higher budget than the Senate Appropriations Committee, while both chambers rejected the President’s proposal to cut the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) through NASA. The House and Senate appropriators also have different funding levels for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which include possible cuts to climate research. Note that federal science budgets also include the social and political sciences, which are funded through the NSF. It took forty years since the establishment of the NSF to include them under its aegis, and this is still contentious; an attempt in the House Science Committee to reduce their funding levels with an amendment earlier this year failed to pass.

Budget negotiations for FY 2015 were not completed when the House and Senate could not come to an agreement on the appropriations bills this summer. With the election approaching, Congress passed a three-month stopgap measure starting in September known as a continuing resolution (CR) to avert another government shutdown. The shutdown in 2013 had a disruptive impact on scientific researchers, students, and agency employees. For example, 99% of NSF’s workforce was furloughed, NASA sent 98% of its employees home without pay or access to their work, and NIH put 73% of its employees on enforced leave and suspended new clinical trials. Fortunately, this experience was not repeated.

Nevertheless, FY 2015 has just begun, and the CR means that the budgets continue on autopilot until December, and scientists hope that by then the new Congress will successfully finalize a budget bill for the rest of the fiscal year. Until a budget is passed, agencies continue to fund their programs at FY 2014 levels, which has the result that “sequestration” spending reductions from the Budget Control Act of 2011 will remain in place. If Congress does not make an agreement to reduce or remove these budget constraints, discretionary spending will return to sequester levels in FY 2016 and will remain there for the rest of the decade, meaning continued challenges for investment in science and technology. Considering that mandatory spending, which includes Social Security and Medicare, will continue to grow relative to the discretionary budget (see this CBO report), future budget negotiations will become even more difficult to resolve.


STEM education and public outreach will be affected by the post-election Congress’s priorities as well. A couple months ago, Sen. J. Rockefeller (D-WV), introduced the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act. According to the Association of American Universities, the bill calls for “robust but sustainable funding increases for the [NSF] and National Institute for Standards and Technology” (NIST), and it supports each agency’s effort to improve education of future STEM professionals. However, support for the bill has not been sufficiently bipartisan to reauthorize it yet. Depending on the post-election environment, the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, introduced by Sen. T. Harkin (IA) might be more likely to pass. The HEA governs federal student aid, and considering that at least 70% of US university graduates are burdened with debt, this is clearly important. The bill would provide some relief for students by increasing state contributions to public universities and thereby reducing tuition fees, supporting community colleges, and expanding programs that allow high school students to earn college credits.

Election Campaigns and Ballot Measures

In addition to these science research and education issues, science policy is also relevant in many midterm election campaigns and ballot measures. Climate change, energy policies, and the environment are the most prominent science policy issues and are playing a big role in campaign ads. With increased flooding in the eastern US and the ongoing drought and wildfire conditions in the southwest—motivating a $7.5 billion water bond in California (see this PPIC post for info)—global warming concerns many voters. However, a partisan divide persists, depending how poll questions are framed. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the Keystone XL remain controversial as well, and anti-fracking measures were nearly included on Colorado and Michigan’s ballots. In addition, in another science policy issue, voters in Colorado and Oregon will decide on the labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops (GMOs).

Moreover, climate change is a major campaign issue in the race between Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52), and Carl DeMaio in San Diego County. This tossup race has gained national attention, and though both candidates acknowledge the science behind climate change, DeMaio has stated that more research is needed. (Both candidates recently visited us at UC San Diego.) Importantly, Peters serves on the House Science Committee, and committee members Alan Grayson (FL-9) and Ami Bera (CA-7) are in close races as well. The post-election House Science Committee could change shape. Climate change also plays a role in the election between Sen. Mark Udall (CO) and Rep. Cory Gardner and in the one between Gov. Rick Scott (FL) and Charlie Crist.

In any case, science policy issues are clearly important in this election, which will have important implications for investment in science research and education.

[Note that part of this post was adapted from an op-ed that I submitted last month to the Journal of Science Policy & Governance.]

8 thoughts on “Implications of the Midterm Election for Science

  1. Pingback: Rep. Rush Holt, Physicist, to Lead American Association for the Advancement of Science | Science Political

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  3. Pingback: Update: US Federal Science Budget for 2015 | Science Political

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