Friday, 04 October 96 Washington, DC
1. HELIUM: REVISED PRIVATIZATION BILL IS PASSED ON A VOICE VOTE.
The period just before Congress adjourns is a dangerous time for
responsible government; bills get pushed through with little or no
debate. And so it was with the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which
calls for the federal government to get out of the helium business,
which is probably not a bad idea, and sell off the helium reserve,
which is a terrible idea. Fortunately, the bill had been amended as a
result of strong opposition from the American Physical Society. As
amended, the bill requires that before any sale can take place, the
National Academy of Sciences must study the impact on American science
and technology. Based on that study, the Interior Secretary will
recommend whatever legislation is needed to avoid adverse effects. The
best outcome would have been for the bill to die in gridlock (WN 12 Jul
96), but it may be possible to revisit the issue in the next Congress.
2. BUDGET: AGREEMENT IS REACHED ON A CATCH-ALL SPENDING BILL.
President Clinton signed the bill just hours before the start of the new fiscal year. The compromise bill funds nine cabinet departments and too many agencies to count. It includes $225M for the Advanced Technology Program at NIST--less than the $345M the White House requested, but double the amount in the original House bill and far above the $60M the Senate had voted earlier. The laboratory research program at NIST got $268M, just $3M below the request. Defense R&D was cut 2% across the board. Several tons of pork were slipped into the huge 3000-page bill, including another $15M for an Alaska supercomputer used to extract money from the aurora borealis. By my count, Senator Stevens (R-AK) has earmarked over $115M for the University of Alaska since 1990 (WN 29 Jul 94). Senator Harkin (D-IA), father of the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine, earmarked $1M for chiropractic schools.
3. SCORECARD: HOUSE MEMBERS RANKED BY HOW THEY VOTED ON SCIENCE.
A group called Science Watch, Inc. tallied votes on 30 measures it regards as key indicators of support for science. You will not be shocked to learn that those who scored high, like George Brown (D-CA), thought it was a great idea, while those who scored low, like Bob Walker (R-PA) used words like "overtly subjective." Democrats outscored Republicans 2 to 1, surprising even members of Science Watch, several of whom held high-level science posts under Reagan and Bush. One of them commented that, "We agreed in advance that we would release the report however it came out."
4. IG NOBEL PRIZE: BRITISH SCIENCE ADVISOR PROTESTS THE AWARD.
It has been won by British scientists rather more frequently than the Nobel. Robert Matthews of Aston University won this year's Physics Prize for proving that toast really does fall buttered side down. President Chirac of France won the Peace Prize for commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima with a bomb test.