Can Sen. Science Fix Our Tech Woes?

Q&A; with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.)

Illustration by Nick Higgins

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.)

The U.S. government gives out more than $100 billion a year for scientific research, and no one has more to say about who gets it than Sen. George Allen
(R-Va.). The Senate´s chief Republican fundraiser and a rising political star, Allen is also a key member of the powerful Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space — and, at press time, widely expected to become its next chairman.

Popular Science What areas of scien-tific and technological research most need to be supported now, and why?

Senator George Allen Our first priorities should be on homeland security and defense. But I think that we also ought to focus on nanoscience and nanotechnology — by all accounts, this is the future. The U.S. is being outpaced in spending: We currently make up only some 25 percent of the global funding for nanotechnology research. This field holds enormous potential for improvements in our lives, as well as for a $1 trillion global market. Now, only a handful of senators, at best, are much conversant on the matter, but I want to position the U.S. by funding universities as well as the private sector. Certain universities have the professors and the facilities to compete in health care sciences, materials science and communications. But for this to happen, nanotechnology has to be funded year in and year out.

PS Recently, you remarked that NASA has too long neglected the first “A” in its name: aeronautics. How so?

GA This country is allowing aeronautics research and development to atrophy. You can already see it in commercial aviation. Not long ago, the United States produced 90 percent of all commercial aircraft. Now we’re at 50 percent . . . I have no objection to space science, but it should not be crowding out aeronautics. The U.S. must increase its investment in aeronautics research and development . . . This funding is essential to the economic viability of the ailing aviation industry as well as to our ability to maintain military air superiority. Currently, most aeronautical engineers are in their 50s or older. Insufficient numbers of young people are studying this field.

PS That’s true, and we’ve made up the difference with foreign researchers. But now many foreign scientists in this and other fields face difficulty getting visas. Can the Senate help?

GA We can make sure that administration officials recognize this and prod them. There is greater scrutiny today on anyone coming to the U.S. I believe systems available in the private sector could help us make more informed and quicker visa decisions . . . In the meantime, it may be frustrating for
scientists, but our priority is security. What foreign scientists work on could be transferred, intentionally or inadvertently, to those who don’t subscribe
to our Jeffersonian ideals.

PS What’s your position on global warming?

GA While the climate has changed for thousands of years, scientists vigorously debate exactly how much impact human actions have on climate change, and what this means for the future. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) states that “there is no consensus, unanimous or otherwise, about long-term climate trends and what causes them.”

PS But the NAS also says that Earth’s temperatures grew by 1°F in the last century and that “changes observed over the last several decades are
likely because of human activities,
for the most part.”

GA But that is the question: How much of this is man-made? Smog has an impact: Cities are always warmer than the countryside. My science courses at the University of Virginia were in environmental studies. It’s hard to determine what’s man-caused climate change. Clearly, we need to improve our air quality. I liked the incentive approach to fuel cell technology in last year’s energy bill. . . And here’s where I get in trouble with some of my Republican colleagues: I like the idea of tax breaks for people purchasing alternative vehicles. Regardless of the impact, we need to reduce dependence on foreign oil and move away from the internal combustion engine.