CORRECTION: Previously published versions of this story incorrectly identified the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel.
Hell hath no fury like a congressman scorned. And if you are going to defy one, don’t defy one who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and chairs the subcommittee that funds your agency.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., got the last word in an ongoing dispute with White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and White House science adviser John Holdren this week when he whacked OSTP’s budget by one-third, from $6.6 million for this year to $4.5 million in the “minibus” appropriations bill.
Wolf has been vocal and impassioned in criticizing the office for trying to coordinate with China on space, environmental, and other projects. He tried to limit these activities with legislation, and when OSTP did an end run by getting a legal ruling that the executive branch didn’t have to submit to congress authority on these matters, Wolf got mad--and then he got even.
Congress is trying to save money, yes, but a couple of million dollars doesn’t even move the needle in efforts to pay down the deficit by $1.2 trillion. Wolf’s staff admits that he wasn't concerned about that.
“This was his intent--to send a message to the Office of Science and Technology Policy,” Wolf spokesman Dan Scandling said in a telephone interview. “We are watching you, and you better not defy Congress any more.”
Wolf says that the government should not share sensitive technologies with China. “I want to be clear: The United States has no business cooperating with the People's Liberation Army to help develop its space program,” he said in testimony on Nov. 2 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
“That is why I was troubled to learn from the press last fall about NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden's imminent departure for a weeklong visit to China to discuss areas of cooperation between NASA and the PLA space program. I was equally concerned to learn that Dr. John Holdren, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, had spent 21 days in China on three separate trips in one year--more than any other country.”
OSTP disputes this, by the way, and says it's more like 12 days in 2009 and 2010 combined, and none in 2011.
Wolf put language into last year’s continuing resolution forbidding NASA and OSTP to “participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.”
OSTP went to the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel, which said in September 2011 that the language was unconstitutional. “Most, if not all, of the activities of the Office of Science and Technology Policy that we have been asked to consider fall within the president’s exclusive power to conduct diplomacy,” it said.
So OSTP continued its programs with China, which include studies in agricultural science, high-energy physics, clean energy, and biomedical research.
“They want to collaborate with the PLA. We are talking about the space program. We are talking about national security. This is a country who is spying on us every second of the day,” Scandling said.
“It’s being spun in the science community as a Republican attack on science,” he added. Scandling noted, though, that the “minibus” includes increases in funding for other science branches, such as $33 million more than last year for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The cuts will “have real consequences on OSTP’s operations,” spokesman Rick Weiss said.
“In light of these reductions, OSTP will prioritize existing activities in the areas where it has statutory and executive responsibilities for coordinating federal research programs and developing policies, including [science, technology, engineering, and math] education; advanced manufacturing; sustainable energy; innovation and entrepreneurship; open government; scientific integrity; and national security.”
Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the cut would not have mattered in years past. "But the current OSTP has been particularly effective, both in providing science advice and getting the president more involved in science issues than we have ever had, at least in my adult lifetime," he said.
Leshner said OSTP plays an important role in streamlining work done by various science agencies -- a role he said is more important than ever in a time of budget cuts. "It makes many of us nervous," he said.
One area likely to be cut--travel, which will no doubt please Wolf.
“You can legally win but still lose,” said one White House staffer, who asked not to be identified because of the controversial nature of the dispute.