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George E. Brown, Jr.
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Rep. Brown Left a Legacy for Science

by Gary Chapman
Director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas, Austin
Text of an article which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Cutting Edge/Digital Nation, August 2, 1999, page 5
Southern California Congressman George E. Brown Jr. who died July 15, 1999 at age 79, was one of the most courageous and visionary members of Congress of the last 50 years. He was my political hero. The American Public did not get to know Brown well, despite his 36 years in the House of Representatives. The San Bernardino Democrat was not a "star" of Washington, in part because of his polite, soft spoken, grandfatherly demeanor. But he was unique in Congress for his long-range vision and his deep commitment to social and civic responsibility.
 
The scientific community knew Brown well. He had a complex and sometimes prickly relationship with scientists and engineers as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and (after 1994) as ranking minority member of the House Science Committee. He was one of the chief sponsors of the legislation that created both the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (which was killed by budget cuts in 1995) and the White House office of Science and Technology Policy, established in 1976.
 
Many scientists and engineers weren't sure what to make of Brown, accustomed as they were to regarding outsiders as either uncritical friends or implacable enemies, with nothing in between. Brown was neither of these; he often confounded the scientific elite at their own professional meetings.
 
Speaking to a group of mathematicians and physicists in 1995, he said he had been reviewing his past speeches and concluded, "I am struck, by how often I have pleaded with the scientific community to pay attention to the changes taking place in the world and the need to become more-closely linked with social goals and needs."
 
This was a recurring theme in a series of groundbreaking speeches Brown delivered in the early to mid-1990s, as he attempted to set out some new directions for U.S. science and technology policy after the end of the Cold War. For 50 years following World War II U.S. science and technology policy was dominated by the Cold War and competition with the Soviet Union. The blueprint for our science and technology policy was drawn up in a famous book, "Science: The Endless Frontier," written by President Roosevelt's science advisor, Vannevar Bush, in 1946.
 
In this book, Bush laid the foundation for what was to become the most scientifically productive period in history. He said that public investments in scientific and technological, research and development were important, first and foremost as a matter of national security, as World War II had demonstrated.
 
But Bush also believed that unfettered support for science and technology would produce benefits for the country in general. This was a significant and historic departure for science and technology in a modern society; prior to World War II, Nearly all scientific and technical research had been funded by private donors, foundations or corporations, and was minuscule in comparison with the postwar period.
 
By the closing years of the Cold War era, about 10 years ago, the U.S. government was spending about $75 billion per year on 13&D, half the total spent in the U.S. as a whale, which in torn was half the world's total annual expenditure.
 
In other words, in 50 years the U.S. government became the overwhelmingly dominant influence on the trajectories of science and advanced technology. And in the late 1980s, nearly 70% of our R&D budget went to military projects.
 
Brown was one of the first people to realize a decade ago that the long reign of Cold War science and technology policy was over and that the U.S. needed a new rationale for public investments in research. He was among the first to identify and describe a "Post-Vanneyar Bush era." He counseled that the nation had many social needs to fulfill and that science, and technology could help, but only through planning, vision and more democratic participation in policymaking than the traditional Cold War "priesthood" of science.
 
Brown also spelled out a new and exciting vision. He proposed opening up and diversifying the myriad scientific advisory committees that serve the, government by bringing in new voices, younger people and even nonexperts. He stressed collaborative and multidisciplinary research as opposed to the zero-sum struggle of each scientific discipline and, subdiscipline fighting frantically for its piece of the funding pie. He pointed out that U.S. science is well-structured like a pyramid, to produce a handful of Nobel Prize winners but not well-organized; to distribute the benefits to all citizens.
 
In a speech in 1995 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Brown said: "I think that Congress and the nation can and does expect more from the research community than we see currently. At the very least we expect you to exercise a modicum of common sense. And common sense dictates that we make good on our promises of societal benefit, where those benefits are no longer the more obvious ones of national military security. Common sense dictates that we envision a new definition of security...based on a healthy, growing and sustainable economy; an improved global environment; and, most important, a just and equitable society, both in our own country and then in an increasingly interdependent global community."
 
Some of Brown's rhetoric rankled the scientific elite, and, unfortunately, little of it acquired much traction in real policy reform. When the Republicans regained the congressional majority in 1994, and Brown relinquished chairmanship of the House Science Committee, he quietly fumed that the new Republican leadership seemed bent on returning the country to the old "black box" model of science policy, which means that government simply dumps money into the magical realm of science and out comes something good for society. Brown knew that this is a crude understanding of how R&D works and a model abandoned decades ago by other modern nations.
 
Government R&D funding is again increasing - it may double in the next seven years - but it still lacks a rational plan or any national goals, something Brown found incomprehensible and frustrating. The scientific establishment has settled back into its old ways: scrambling for grants, fighting internally about whose research is more important and getting sympathetic members of Congress to "earmark" funding for specific institutions and projects - a form of pork that Brown combated with particular intensity and vigor.
 
Brown led a long and exemplary life: but there are two tragedies surrounding his death. One is that he was feeling increasingly discouraged by what Congress has become, which is mostly a place where not much gets done and where innovative ideas like his are unwelcome. Even though he was a member of Congress for nearly four decades, it feels like his work was left unfinished.
 
The bigger, tragedy is that there is no one like George E. Brown Jr. to take his place, fill his shoes and carry on his work.
 
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Last Modified: 10/18/2005
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