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Science Magazine: A historian who oversees NIH’s budget looks to compromise and takes the long view

January 29, 2015
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Science Magazine - Jeffrey Mervis

Next week, the Obama administration will kick off the annual U.S. budget process by sending Congress its spending request for the 2016 fiscal year that begins in October. Researchers will be watching the 2 February budget rollout carefully, to see where science ranks in the White House’s priorities. But the request is just the beginning, because Congress determines final spending levels in a process that isn’t likely to be finalized until late in the year.

This week, ScienceInsider is running a few stories that offer varying perspectives on the process of setting science budgets—and the people involved. Yesterday, we met Representative John Culberson (R–TX), the new leader of the House of Representatives spending panel that oversees the budgets of NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other key research agencies. Tomorrow, we’ll follow the money and look at some of the numbers. Today, we meet a former historian who is the new head of a House spending panel that oversees the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the major federal funder of basic biomedical research.

If you’re shocked that a member of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives would cite a Marxist historian in defending peer review at a federal agency, then you don’t know Representative Tom Cole (R-OK).

The 65-year-old Oklahoman has stayed below the radar screen of most U.S. scientists, despite serving in Congress since 2003 and holding a Ph.D. in history. But that’s about to change: This month he takes the reins of what is traditionally the most contentious of the 12 appropriations panels that set federal budgets, the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-H) subcommittee. Its portfolio includes NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cole’s impeccable conservative credentials have made him very useful to House Speaker John Boehner (R–OH) in maintaining ties to the party’s unruly right wing. But Cole also has earned the reputation as a pragmatic legislator, someone who seeks common ground rather than ideological purity on contentious issues. And when discussion turns to the current fight in Congress over whether NSF and other federal agencies are making poor decisions about which research grants to fund, Cole sounds more like the history professor he once aspired to be than a partisan politician.

“Now, [E. P.] Thompson is not a guy I’d agree with philosophically,” Cole told ScienceInsider during an interview earlier this month in his Capitol Hill office, referring to the influential British socialist historian. “But his [1963] book—The Making of the English Working Class—was great social analysis and a groundbreaking piece of work.”

The idea of studying the diet of people in Victorian England “may not sound like real history to someone who thinks all history should be about politicians and wars,” notes Cole, whose own dissertation was on the origins and evolution of a working-class village in London’s East End. “But historians have a pretty good sense of what type of research should be pursued. And I don’t think that people who aren’t historians should be deciding whether that type of research should be done. So I have to come down more on the side of scientists on this one than the politicians.”

Perils of one-party rule

Cole has watched his home state of Oklahoma change from a Democrat bastion to a Republican stronghold within his political lifetime. And even though Cole has benefited from that switch, he doesn’t think it’s good for the country to have blue and red enclaves.

“I don’t have a Democratic congressman living within 200 miles of me in any direction,” he says. “There are none in Arkansas, none in Kansas, none in northern Texas. And Republicans hold almost every state office in Oklahoma. It’s almost the precise opposite of when I got into politics in 1980, when Republicans had one of the state’s six congressional seats and one of two Senate seats, and one of 13 statewide offices. And this makes it extremely difficult for one side to understand the other.”

In fact, Cole says his affiliation with the Republican Party is due to his mother’s belief in a strong, two-party system. The family moved around a lot because his father was a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force, Cole recalls, and “every place she went where there was a competitive two-party system, government was better: more transparent and honest and efficient. She was what I call a Lord Acton Republican: She believed that power corrupts when there’s way too much of it on one side.”

“She pledged that when my dad retired and we came back to Oklahoma, she’d become a member of the other party,” he adds. “I like to say that, if she were choosing today, she’d probably become a Democrat.”

Cole’s political beliefs were sorely tested at the liberal-leaning Grinnell College in Iowa in the late 1960s. Terry Parssinen, then a young history professor at the college, recalls that Cole “had to keep his head down; there was certainly no Young Republican club on campus.” Cole agrees: “You didn’t talk politics at Grinnell if you were a Republican.”

Instead, Cole talked history with Parssinen. “He was the best student in a class of very good students,” says Parssinen, now at the University of Tampa in Florida. “A brilliant scholar, very thoughtful, and he tended not to be impulsive. He just seemed to be drawn to working-class, British history.”

Parssinen and his wife, Carol, befriended undergraduates Cole and his wife, Ellen. Several years later the couples reconnected in London when Cole, on a Fulbright scholarship, was living in the working-class neighborhood and interviewing residents for his dissertation. “They asked us about being an academic, and I had every expectation that he would follow in our footsteps,” says Carol Parssinen, an English professor who was then teaching in Grinnell’s semester-abroad program.

Cole says he did, too. But stronger forces steered him in another direction.

After starting a Ph.D. history program at Yale University, he left in 1974 with a master’s degree after deciding that “the history market was collapsing, and I also missed home.” However, a decision to enroll in law school at the University of Oklahoma (OU), Norman, had an even shorter shelf life.

“Well, it took about a semester for me to realize that I hated law school,” he says. “There was a torts case about whether a bunch of guys on a company bowling team could keep their shirts after getting in a fight with the company. And I remember thinking that 6 months ago I was at Yale, deciding who was responsible for starting World War I.”

So Cole decided to give history a second chance. The chair of OU’s history department knew his former adviser at Grinnell, Cole says, and offered him a full scholarship and a teaching assistantship. Cole took it in a heartbeat. “Sometimes God opens a door for you, and you walk through it,” he explains.

It took him almost a decade to earn his Ph.D. And what he learned from his immersion in that working-class community would not have been out of place coming from a labor leader, or a liberal historian: “Urban renewal programs designed to rebuild proletarian districts should incorporate features which strengthen rather than weaken local communities,” he writes in his 1984 dissertation. “All decisions should take into account the social benefits of communal life.”

By then, however, he was hooked on politics. His mother, Helen, had lost her first race for the Oklahoma state legislature in 1976, while he was abroad, and Cole felt personally responsible for her defeat. “So I told her that, if she decided to run again, I would learn how to run her campaign,” Cole recalls. “Well, she won, so I thought, ‘This is kinda cool.’ ” She never lost again, serving a total of five terms in the state House and Senate. And Cole ran every campaign.

Historian Gary Cohen, part of Cole’s dissertation committee and a member of the OU faculty for 25 years, sees Helen’s victory as a seminal event in Cole’s life. “Politics became the family business,” says Cohen, now at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Cole began working for other Republican politicians, first locally and eventually for the national party. “I still fantasized about going back to academia,” he says. “But the job opportunities were always greater for me in politics. And I was probably better at it, too.”

Eventually, he became a candidate himself. In 2002 he won an open congressional seat in a solidly Republican district, and since then he has been re-elected comfortably six times.

The art of compromise

Since arriving in Washington, D.C., Cole has been on a fast track within the Republican House leadership. He is one of only three Republicans who serve on both the Appropriations and Budget committees, giving him a front-row seat in spending decisions. He’s also part of the House Republican majority’s inner circle: In addition to sitting on the rules committee, which decides what legislation will move to the floor, he is a deputy whip and a member of the Republican Steering Committee.

Although Cole’s party credentials are impeccable, Democrats say he’s also willing to listen to other points of view. “He has a strong partisan background, but he does not lean over backward to put politics over substance,” says David Obey, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin who spent 42 years in Congress before retiring in 2010 and who chaired the overall Appropriations Committee as well as Labor-H. “I think he tries to see that people behave as adults.”

That approach should come in handy at Labor-H, which is often ground zero for battles between liberals and conservatives over Obamacare, abortion rights, the federal role in education, and other cultural litmus tests. Cole says he plans to hold numerous committee hearings so that members can thrash out their differences and move toward common ground.

That’s a good idea, agrees the ranking Democrat on the panel, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D–CT), who has already met with Cole. “He wants the subcommittee to be more active, and I reminded him that we used to bring in all the NIH institute directors and really get a chance to hear what they are doing,” she says.

However, both Cole and DeLauro know that talk is no substitute for money. “The real problem is that our [302(b)] allocation has been woefully inadequate, and raising it is both his goal and my goal,” says DeLauro, referring to the top-line allotment of money that the subcommittee receives to fund all of the agencies and programs within its jurisdiction. Unless and until the Labor-H allocation increases, Cole isn’t promising that he can deliver a big boost for NIH, or even allow it to keep pace with inflation.  

“Until people above the Appropriations Committee pay grade actually come to an agreement on the appropriate balance and sources of revenue and entitlement reform, we’re going to have this problem across the discretionary budget. Whether you’re a defense hawk or if you believe in a robust federal role in research, you’re both facing the need for some hard choices.”

Cole’s own list of priorities starts with maintaining a strong military and protecting the National Weather Service’s Weather Forecast Office in Norman—his nearby hometown of Moore has been hit by several devastating tornadoes. He’s a strong advocate for the Indian Health Service. (As a Chickasaw, he’s one of two Native Americans in Congress, and his rural district has a sizable Indian population.) He’s also a fan of NIH’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which steers research funds to states like Oklahoma that get relatively little federal science funding.

Some biomedical lobbyists think the IDeA program isn’t the best use of scarce NIH resources. But Cole defends its value in making have-not states more competitive for NIH funding.

“First of all, it’s not a very large pot of money [$273 million in a $30 billion NIH budget],” he begins. “And second, there are political and academic biases. … I don’t think there’s any shortage of human talent, but I do think that resources get directed disproportionately in some ways. And programs that make sure states that historically have been overlooked, or that give colleges a chance to show what they can do, make a lot of sense to me.”

“I think that maintaining a national scientific base is just as important as maintaining a national industrial base,” he adds. “And that’s what these programs are designed to do.”

The Labor-H committee is also responsible for education and workforce development. Aware of their political sensitivity, Cole declined to answer a series of questions from ScienceInsider relating to the topics, from whether NIH should do more for young scientists to the value of the Common Core, a voluntary set of language arts and mathematics education standards available to the states.

“I need to learn more about how NIH works before I pontificate on what it should do,” he says. “But within education, what interests me the most are things that improve access for historically excluded communities or that help people with no college background to get prepared for college. I’m a big believer in programs like TRIO and GEAR UP [which provide scholarships for disadvantaged students].”

Legislators are students, too, Cole says, and they are constantly looking for the best teachers. “There’s always some constituent who knows more about what I’m voting on than I do,” he begins, “and their job is to find a way to educate me. But they have to realize that they aren’t the only person I represent. There are lots of constituencies with a lot of competing interests. But the more educated you make me, frankly, the more likely I am to be effective in representing your point of view.”

Legislators also look to their colleagues on both sides of the aisle for answers, in ways that Cole says can be mutually beneficial. “When Vern Ehlers [a retired Republican representative from Michigan] was here, he used to joke that he really was a rocket scientist,” Cole says. “But my point is, I would listen to him or to Rush Holt [the retired Democratic representative and physicist from New Jersey who is the incoming CEO of AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider], about science and how the research process works. They both knew what they were talking about in a way that I never could. And I might have a chance to vote on something that was important to them on a committee that they didn’t serve on.”

In the end, Cole says, his job as an appropriator is “to get the deal done.” And that’s where he hopes his ability to listen will pay off. “There will be things we’ll fight about, and they are fairly predictable,” he says. “But if you have enough hearings, I promise you that you’ll find some things that both sides can agree upon, and you’ll surprise one another.”

Online: Science Magazine