Congress, Bipartisanship, and Science

By Sheeva Azma

Read about the importance of bipartisanship to advance scientific innovation in this post.

The former Democratic senator from Indiana, Evan Bayh, once said that, “There are not enough purple states.” Sen. Bayh was referring to states that are both blue (Democrat) and red (Republican).  Both the media and politicians are seeking to energize their audiences by relying on partisan tactics, especially in the 24-hour news cycle.  More and more, it seems that U.S. policy is determined by what gets the most retweets. Sadly, that approach undermines American society by deepening division on “controversial” issues where there are, in reality, shared underlying values.

Finding common ground is essential to any relationship. That includes our connections with our lawmakers, and also the rapport lawmakers have with each other. Bipartisanship is important even in the best of times, but amid a pandemic, it is an absolute necessity. In fact, bipartisanship has always been important to advance science.  There’s no such thing as Democrat science or Republican science; the medical breakthroughs that result from federal funding for science help the whole world. It’s true that political priorities do influence scientific research, as federal research agencies are funded via Congress annually, but in practice, science is a means to an end — an improved future for both the United States and the world.

That’s why science funding has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress.  To people familiar with how Congress works, this is an obvious fact, as the federal budget appropriations process, which establishes funding levels for federal research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, among others, involves both major political parties.

The Science Coalition, a private, nonpartisan institution with more than 40 university members, has recognized the contributions of policymakers to science.  Republican recipients of its “Champion of Science” award include Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), among others.  The Council of Scientific Society Presidents, a science leadership organization, awarded their “Support of Science” award to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and former Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN).  These are facts that are ignored by Democrats who are quick to blame the opposing party as being anti-science.  The truth is that, without Republican support, science research as we know it would not even exist.

The common ground is easy to find in the case of federal support for science. Biomedical science research directly leads to breakthroughs that save lives. It creates new jobs for people in science and medicine, and has a cascading impact on related industries such as biotechnology and pharma. Science funding is also a great investment which yields excellent returns, both in terms of reducing the cost of health care by creating new cures, and by creating foundational advances that can be built upon in future research to yield greater dividends.

True leaders are masters of bipartisanship and working together.  Republican Abraham Lincoln famously appointed all three of his Republican rivals during the presidential race to his cabinet. Without the efforts of Senator Dirksen to rally Senate Republicans (a minority at the time) to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it would not have been passed.  Other landmark achievements resulting from bipartisanship include the establishment of NASA, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Yet, in the current political climate, we’ve chosen to look beyond what we have in common and focus on what divides us.

In today’s era of cancel culture, it’s easier to send out a tweet criticizing one’s opponents or political adversary than to actually reach out to them and look for common ground. Bipartisanship isn’t always popular, but it works. Constituents of both major US political parties revere bipartisan lawmakers — the reason being that they get stuff done. 

In order to accomplish meaningful advances to end the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to go back to our shared values and work towards a common goal rather than seeking to score political points.

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