• David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Paul Ryan's Record on Science and Government

17 August 2012 2:06 pm

James Currie/Wikimedia

Caption: Back to basics. Paul Ryan (left), chosen by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (right) as his running mate, has been a fan of government support for basic research. Applied research? Not so much.

U.S. Representatives Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) don't have much in common when it comes to politics. Kucinich is a very liberal Democrat who's leaving Congress this January after being defeated in a primary election by a more moderate colleague. Ryan is a conservative leader and now the Republican Party's presumptive candidate for vice president. A dozen years ago, however, the two men found one thing they could agree on—killing the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a multibillion dollar laser fusion project at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Kucinich wanted to cut construction funds for NIF because it would help sustain the nation's nuclear arsenal, which he thinks should be eliminated. Ryan, in his first term, took a more pragmatic view: DOE hadn't explained how it was going to deal with "amazing mismanagement problems," "phenomenal cost overruns," and extensive delays.
"Let us watch our taxpayers' dollars," Ryan said on the House of Representatives floor in June 2000.="#page=31">

Ryan didn't win that battle, although today the fusion project is still wrestling with many of the issues he highlighted. But the fight helped shape his reputation for attacking government spending programs that he feels are wasteful. And it marked a relatively rare case in which the Wisconsin politician took an active, high-profile position on a specific issue of interest to the scientific community.

A review by ScienceInsider of Ryan's 14-year career in Congress suggests he holds some strong views on the role of the federal government in funding and regulating research and innovation. In particular, although Ryan has expressed strong support for government funding of basic science, his critics argue that a 10-year budget roadmap he authored—if enacted—would substantially slow future spending on fundamental studies.

At the same time, Ryan is no fan of investments in nonmilitary applied research, particularly in the energy technology arena. The private sector can do a better job of picking "winners and losers," he says. Meanwhile, Ryan's stands on a variety of other issues—including opposing human embryonic stem cell research and questioning climate change science—have put him at odds with some researchers.

Here's a rundown on Ryan’s record on a range of science and technology topics:

Long-term federal spending

Ryan is best known for his work as a member of the House Budget Committee, which he now chairs. Following a time-honored tradition, Ryan has used his post to champion annual budget blueprints designed to highlight policy differences between the two major parties on taxation and spending. These blueprints typically lack detail (as ScienceInsider's Jeffrey Mervis noted about Ryan's 2013 budget plan, which was released in March), aren't enforceable, and are typically full of questionable economic assumptions. But Ryan's plans have sparked extensive debate, especially his proposals for remaking social welfare programs, such as the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly.

The implications of his plan for federal research spending are harder to nail down, although science advocates are plenty nervous. In large part, that's because it calls for slowing the overall growth of federal spending over the next decade, particularly in what is known as "nondefense discretionary spending." That is the roughly 15% share of the total federal budget that includes the four biggest civilian research agencies: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and DOE’s Office of Science.

Ryan’s plan is vague in how it would shape spending by these agencies. But The Washington Post's Brad Plumer has pointed out that you can get some sense of how Ryan's approach differs from President Barack Obama's by comparing tables buried deep in two documents: the House Budget Committee's "Chairman’s Mark" for the fiscal year 2013 budget, and the White House's 2013 budget request to Congress. Both show how officials expect spending to grow between now and 2022.

Now, Washington budget wonks will tell you that these forecasts (known as outyear projections) are driven by notoriously unreliable economic assumptions, rarely come to pass, and are revised every year, making them akin to those frustrating 10-day weather forecasts. In addition, neither the White House nor Ryan have fully factored in the possible impact of the mandatory cuts that could take effect in January if Congress and the White House can't reach a deal on taxes and spending. Still, the projections provide one of the few ways of making apples-to-apples comparisons between the spending visions of the two sides.

A comparison shows, for instance, that Obama expects total science spending at NASA, NSF, and DOE—which are lumped together in a federal budget category known as "general science" (also known as line 250 in budget documents)—to grow by an average of 2% per year between 2013 and 2022, to about $35.7 billion. In contrast, Ryan forecasts a more modest 1.3% average annual rise, to $33.2 billion. That's about 6% less over the decade than Obama’s budget. In addition, the two sides project different spending curves, with Obama forecasting at least some increase in the account every year, while Ryan's budget calls for a 4% spending cut in 2013 before restoring modest increases in 2014 and beyond.

It's harder to compare what the two budget plans might mean for NIH, the single largest source of basic research dollars. That's because it is a relatively small part of the budget's "health" category (line 550), which is greatly influenced by assumptions about how new health care reforms play out. Such uncertainties, however, haven't stopped the White House from slamming the potential impact of Ryan's budget on biomedical research. Administration officials estimate that it would cause the number of new NIH grants to "shrink by more than 1,600 in 2014 and by over 16,000 over a decade." Democratic members of the House Budget Committee have gone even further, asserting that the Ryan budget "abandons investments in research and innovation."

Biomedical research funding

Although Ryan has not directly addressed how his budget proposals might affect NIH, in the past he has said that he sees an "important and proper" federal role for backing basic biomedical research. On 22 March 2000, for example, Ryan went to the House floor to argue in favor of
a Republican budget proposal to add money to an already hefty increase for NIH, which was in the midst of a 5-year doubling supported by both Democrats and Republicans.="#page=6">

"We hear all the time: I did not think the Republicans ever wanted to put more money into government programs than the Democrats. We hear that kind of thing all the time. It is all about priorities. The priorities we believe so fundamentally in is the proper role of the Federal Government, and one of the most important and proper roles of the Federal Government is in the funding of basic research, basic research to improve the health and welfare of our people.

One of the things that we have to tackle is all of these diseases that are plaguing our society. Heart disease is something that affects my own family. My father passed away by a heart attack, so did my grandfather. Personally I very much would like to see a breakthrough in heart disease research. Cancer is something that has hit our families. I know it has for so many people. We are getting close to breakthroughs in cancer research. These are important things the Federal Government can do to improve the lives of millions of Americans. Alzheimer's, all of these things are hard commitments that the Republican Party has made. More importantly, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, it is about doing what is right.

The budget that we are bringing to the floor tomorrow is a continuation on the priorities that we have established here in Congress with these budgets: funding basic research to try and find breakthrough cures for cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease, diabetes, stopping the raid on the Social Security Trust Fund so that when one pays their Social Security taxes, it actually goes back to Social Security."

Ryan has also, at times, been part of bipartisan majorities that have voted to boost funding for biomedical research.

Stem cell research

Ryan has been a consistent and implacable foe of one area of biomedical research, however—studies involving the use of stem cells taken from human embryos. Since arriving in Congress in 1999, Ryan has steadfastly voted for legislation that would ban federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research or expand the number of embryonic stem cell lines available to taxpayer-funded researchers.

Ryan, a Catholic who opposes abortion except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger, has also supported legislation that would define human life as beginning at the moment a human egg is fertilized. Some researchers fear that definition, if enacted, could complicate the development and use of birth control technologies that block the development of fertilized eggs. Ryan has also backed a ban on human cloning.

Public Health

Although a program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that helps Hollywood television and movie makers accurately depict medical issues is not strictly a research issue, in 2007 Ryan got the attention of some in the public health community when he moved to cut its funding. "Instead of using its resources to fight life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer, the CDC has instead spent money on needless luxury items and nongovernment functions," Ryan said
in introducing his amendment to a spending bill. CDC had spent "over $1.7 million on a 'Hollywood liaison' to advise TV shows like 'E.R.' and 'House' on medical information included in their programming, clearly an expense that should have been covered by the successful for-profit television shows, not by our hard-earned tax dollars. … In a time when we are facing increasing risk of bioterrorism and disease, these are hardly the best use of taxpayer dollars." Ryan's amendment passed the House on a voice vote, but was ultimately dropped from the final legislation.="#page=3">

Energy research

On his Congressional Web site, Ryan says the United States "must continue to develop new sources of energy that are reliable, renewable, affordable and environmentally safe." But he's not been a fan of federal policies—pursued under both Republican and Democratic administrations—that funnel applied research funding to industry and academia to commercialize specific energy technologies. "Having Washington pick winners and losers in the marketplace only further distorts the market, weakens the rule of law, and ultimately, fails to spur sustainable job creation," Ryan argues on his Web site.

Such views have supported a steady string of votes against an array of federal programs that fund everything from applied research into wind and solar energy to new designs for "clean coal" and nuclear power plants.

For example, Ryan backed one effort to reduce funding for DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which pumps public money into "high risk" studies of potentially transformational clean energy technologies. In 2011, he voted for an amendment offered by Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL) to cut $50 million from the program as part of Biggert’s attempt to protect DOE's $5 billion Office of Science. That vote potentially puts him at odds with running mate Mitt Romney, whose campaign representatives have lauded the 3-year-old ARPA-E. (The Biggert amendment failed.)

Ryan has also repeatedly assailed—and voted against—Obama Administration programs to promote alternative energy technologies. But Ryan's opposition to "green" energy programs has also extended to initiatives put forward by Republican presidents, including George W. Bush. In 2007, for example, Ryan raised doubts on the House floor about a Bush Administration plan to give certain renewable and energy efficiency programs a 50% increase.
"It adds a lot of green for uncertain returns," Ryan said. "It is extremely unclear whether this enormous boost in spending will actually do anything to achieve energy independence."="#page=3">

And green energy subsidies haven't been Ryan's only target: He's been an equal opportunity budget cutter when it comes to programs that give money to nuclear and fossil fuel firms. In June 2000, for example, Ryan went to the House floor
to assail one Clinton-era coal plant technology program as a "boondoggle."="#page=45">

"There is nothing new being developed under the Clean Coal Technology Program except for new ways to squander taxpayers' money. … The Clean Coal Technology Program under the Department of Labor has spent nearly $2.5 billion since 1986 in grants to help private industry develop commercial technologies to burn coal in less polluting ways. What that essentially means is that we have given $2.5 billion already to private companies for commercial technologies to make a profit on it to sell it. In other words, it is industrial policy. We are picking winners and losers in the marketplace with Federal subsidies, subsidizing the research and development end of their budget, thereby engaging in what many people call corporate welfare. …

This is a thing of the past. Why we should continue to subsidize these corporate budgets is beyond me."

This past June, Ryan also voted for an amendment, offered by Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA), to cut $514 million from DOE’s nuclear research budget. (Ryan's side lost the vote.)

In 2008, however, Ryan also suggested
raising new funds for energy research by opening more federal land to oil and gas drilling, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. "We have got 16 billion barrels of oil up in ANWR that are off-limits by Congress," he said during a floor statement, adding that allowing drilling "would get us about $191 billion in revenue to the Federal Government over the next 10 years. … Imagine what we could do with that. … Imagine the hydrogen, the fuel cells, the research that we could do to actually invest in a Manhattan Project to get us off of oil itself." ="#page=3">

Climate Science

Ryan has few fans among climate researchers and those who want to see greater government action on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2009, he voted against landmark "cap-and-trade" climate legislation that narrowly passed the House (and ultimately failed in the Senate). "This bill is not about science, it's not about costs and benefits; it's about ideology," Ryan said during the debate.

"Because if you look at the costs and benefits, the goal of this bill is to reduce global warming by 2/10 of a degree over a hundred years, hit our economy with this massive tax increase on homeowners, on people buying gasoline, heating their homes, hit manufacturing at a time when our competitors will not do this. … What will the U.S. have achieved? [It] will have pushed production off our shores. Jobs will be lost. Prices will go up. And other countries will take those jobs and put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

This unilateral big government, Big Brother bill is not good for the planet. It's not good for our economy. And it sure as heck is not good for the Midwest."

In 2011, Ryan also opposed an amendment that would have recognized "scientific findings ... that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare." He has also supported attempts to bar the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and to
eliminate the positions of several White House advisers on climate and energy issues.="#ixzz1eippsyfe">

In a December 2009 newspaper column, Ryan also questioned the reliability of climate science. Citing e-mails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in the United Kingdom that hackers had made public, Ryan warned that "environmental issues have fallen victim to the hyper-politicization of science." The e-mails revealed scientists' efforts to "intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change," he wrote, and "a perversion of the scientific method, where data were manipulated to support a predetermined conclusion … While interests on both sides of the issue will debate the relevance of the manipulated or otherwise omitted data, these revelations undermine confidence in the scientific data driving the climate change debates." (Several investigations ultimately cleared the scientists of wrongdoing.)

Could Ryan's views on climate change put him in conflict with running mate Romney? That’s the question explored here by The Washington Post's Plumer.

Looking Ahead

Ryan's views on science and technology issues aren't likely to play a significant role in November’s election. And if voters give him a promotion to the White House, it's unclear how much interest he'd take in using the vice presidential office to weigh in on issues such as research funding or technology policy. While some past occupants—most notably Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s number two—made science a visible part of their portfolio, most have been content to let others take the lead.

See more coverage on science and the U.S. 2012 elections.