What Tomorrow's Elections Mean for Science and TechnologyS

Tuesday's midterms could mean more than just a routine reshuffling of the House and Senate majorities. The fates of a number of important science and technology policies also hang in the balance.

Net Neutrality
If things go the way the polls seem to indicate, the fight to keep an open Internet could become much harder next year. Incumbent congressman and front-runner to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), has already said there will be little incentive to support the current temporary compromise if Republicans capture the House on Tuesday. That's no surprise given that Upton himself has long history of Net neutrality opposition. He has called FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's plan to reclassify broadband as a "blind power grab."

"Knowing we'll have a much stronger hand come January, there's no reason for us to compromise or save someone's bacon," Upton said in an interview with Politico.

Over the past five months, telecom and Internet companies have been scrambling to come up with a compromise for the controversial issue. The current draft would have granted the FCC temporary authority to regulate content on the Internet, but not on wireless networks. But even that neutered version never came close to a vote, as key Republicans refused to sign on to the draft legislation. Don't expect things to get better if Tea Party candidates also win seats, either. A coalition that included 35 groups sent a letter to the FCC last August urging it not to extend authority over broadband providers because doing so would be "an affront to free speech."

NASA Budget
Surprise! NASA's having money problems. Republican gains in the midterm elections will likely make matters worse for the agency. After a review called it underfunded and overambitious, Obama opted to end to the Constellation program last February. In its place, the administration said it wanted to reallocate that money for new technologies and private spaceflight. The problem? Congress balked. In late September, it passed another act actually requesting funds for projects initiated under Constellation, but also granting less than half of the administration's request for private spaceflight. Now, with Congress in recess and still unable to get a revised budget, NASA is locked into its current funding level. In essence, that means the agency has to keep spending on programs that it's going to have to kill anyway, and can't start new ones. It's thought that if Democrats retain control of the Senate and House, they'll probably pass an appropriations bill to allocate additional money for NASA. And if the Republicans prevail? Well, negotiations will likely be deferred until January, when the party would take over the appropriations subcommittee.

Environmental Policy
In his inauguration speech, Obama promised to "restore science to its rightful place." Keeping that promise won't be easy over the next two years if Tea Party candidates win key races (Delaware, Colorado, and Nevada are the big ones) this Tuesday. If the GOP grabs a majority in the Senate, global warming naysayer Rep. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is poised to once again become majority leader of the Environment and Public Works Committee. That committee oversees things like pollution and wildlife regulations, as well as public works projects. Inhofe, you might remember, famously called global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" during his previous tenure as the committee's Majority Leader from 2003-2007. Other threats to environmental policy include Tea Party darling Sharron Angle (R), who also believes global warming is a bunch of hooey. In fact, she wants to scrap the Environmental Protection Agency altogether. Angle is currently in a fierce battle with Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

Taxes
It's been an epic year for corporate profits. According to the Commerce Department, profits have surged 62 percent from the start of 2009 to mid-2010. That's faster than any other year and a half period since the 20s. Nevertheless, that hasn't stopped major Silicon Valley companies from pressuring lawmakers to ease up on the current tax code. With an estimated 1.2 trillion in profits still parked in overseas bank accounts, US tech companies claim that it's become way too expensive to bring that money back to the US under the current tax law. While it's unclear whether any substantive changes will be enacted in the next two years, you can count a Republican majority sympathizing with that plight much more than a Democrat-run House and Senate.

Prop 23
It doesn't get as much play as other ballot measures (cough, Prop 19... whoa...). Still, Prop 23 has huge implications for California . Bankrolled by two Texan oil companies (and supported by Tea Party), this proposition would essentially suspend the state's 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act until California's unemployment rate drops to 5.5 per cent or less for the period of one year. (Note: Those conditions have been met only three times since 1980.) In essence, it's a cynical attempt to pit jobs vs. the planet, and hopefully one voters will see through. If it passes, parts of the Act, including a mandate to return California's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and a cap-and-trade system that could be introduced in 2012, will undoubtedly be delayed. Thankfully, neither of the state gubernatorial candidates—Meg Whitman (R) or Jerry Brown (D)—supports the proposition. Whitman does, however, endorse suspending the GWSA for at least a year while the economy recovers.

Stem Cell Legislation
Last March, when Republican Congressman Mike Castle introduced a bill supporting human embryonic stem-cell research to the US House of Representatives, the goal was to ensure that "an over-arching ethical framework was signed into law by Congress." Unfortunately, Castle, ditched his House seat to run for the Senate and then lost his party's nomination to Tea Party-backed opponent Christine O'Donnell. O'Donnell happens to be resolutely against stem cell science and, well, all science in general. Back in 1998, she described evolution as a "myth," and when challenged about that assertion, her comeback was: "Well then, why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?" Awesome. Scientists also have to worry about a new lawsuit that seeks to suspend federal funding for the stem cell research that could overturn guidelines implementing Obama's order as early as next month. That possibility has advocates calling for Congress to pass the Castle bill before the new congress is seated.