The Undefeated

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a leading champion of science and technology, has won battle after battle and is now at the pinnacle of power. Can she keep it up?

When Republicans on the House Science Committee in June prepared deep cuts at NASA, slashing the agency’s climate-monitoring Earth sciences program in Maryland, Florida’s Sen. Bill Nelson, a former astronaut, could only chuckle: “You think Barbara Mikulski is going to allow that?” Nelson’s quip to an audience of aerospace executives and engineers underscored the priorities and power of his fellow Democrat, the senior U.S. senator from Maryland. Though better known for feisty populism, feminism, and progressive causes, the four-foot-eleven Mikulski has long been a towering presence in the world of government-funded science and technology. Now, with added stature as chair of Appropriations, she can, as much as anyone in 2013 Washington, underwrite her enthusiasms with the government’s checkbook.

Representing a state that reaps rich rewards from federally funded labs, “in many ways, she is the most underappreciated advocate for science in the House and the Senate over a long period of time,” says former Mikulski aide Kevin F. Kelly, now a vice president at Van Scoyoc Associates, one of Washington’s largest lobbying firms. Drawn to science since childhood, she has, over 37 years in Congress, mounted a boxing-gloves-style defense of Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Center, the National Institutes of Health, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Security Agency, and major university research centers. If these institutions – and the rest of the federal science and engineering establishment – survive this fall’s fiscal fights without major harm, it will be in large measure due to the clout and political skills of the tart-tongued 77-year-old Baltimorean. “Our nation is in an amazing race – the race for discovery and new knowledge, the race to remain competitive,” Mikulski argues. “Federal investments and public-private partnerships in innovation have the power to save lives, create prosperity, and protect the homeland.”

Mikulski picked up the Appropriations gavel when shrinking budgets and partisan stalemates – “brinkmanship, shutdown, showdown, slamdown,” in her words – made the job a lot less enviable than when predecessor Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and, before him, the legendary Robert Byrd of West Virginia held sway. Once a perch for dispensing largesse in return for favors and votes, the chairmanship lost considerable luster as a result of a 2011 ban on earmarks – money designated for lawmakers’ individual pet projects. Mikulski won the chair only after two more senior Democrats on the panel – Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Harkin of Iowa – turned it down, a decision unheard of in earlier times. For her part, Mikulski jumped at the chance finally to chair her first full committee. “I think Senator Mikulski can probably do it as well as anybody, but it’s going to be a very difficult time,” says Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, a Virginia Republican and senior House appropriator, who, like her, is a strong supporter of science. Still, those in the research community who counted on Mikulski in the past are comforted she’s got their back. “She’s fantastically effective and fantastically important right now,” says NIH director Francis S. Collins. “She clearly has identified biomedical research as one of her highest priorities.”

“It’s very fortuitous for us,” adds Louis Uccellini, director of NOAA’s National Weather Service. “She lives this topic. She very much believes in the power of science and what it can do to improve the lives of people in this country and around the world.”

The great-granddaughter of Polish immigrants, Mikulski recalls being inspired as a child when her parents, who ran an East Baltimore grocery store, took her to a movie about Marie Curie. Young Barbara decided she too wanted to be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. “I begged my parents to buy me a chemistry set,” she says. Earning a C in college chemistry prompted her to pursue social work instead, but her interest in science persisted even after she earned a master’s and became a community organizer. She was accepted into a graduate program at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health before her career took a decisive turn: A proposed 16-lane highway threatened to cut through her community, displacing families she’d worked with, including some of the first African Americans to own homes in the city. Her activist passions ignited, Mikulski successfully fought the highway, won a spot on the Baltimore City Council in 1971, and then, in 1976, won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

She brought to the Hill a distinctive, effective political toolbox containing a knack for horse-trading, a pragmatic streak, and a sledgehammer style. “Nobody would ever use the term ‘mellow’ to describe me,” she once said, her outsize voice a gravelly echo of “Bawlimer.”


Hormones and Hubble

Mikulski’s advocacy for science and technology gained heft when she joined the Senate in 1986 as the first Democratic woman elected in her own right. She shrewdly eyed a spot on Appropriations and became a protégée of then Chairman Byrd. In two years, she leapt to the helm of the subcommittee that controls funding for NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation, and other scientific agencies, many of them in Maryland, and used her growing clout to prop up, beef up, and sometimes rescue science and tech interests, all in the name of “jobs, jobs, jobs” — her longtime mantra — and innovation.

Jim Dyer, a Republican strategist who served as staff director of the House Appropriations Committee for more than a decade, says Mikulski’s interest is “not just about Maryland. . . . She really believes there’s a proper role for the United States government in investing in research dollars in these areas. She’s had a direct influence on a lot of decisions that have been made on where to go forward with regard to scientific research.” In 2008, Discover magazine named her one of the nation’s 10 most influential people in science. “When it comes to progress in science, funding from government is often the grease that we need most,” the article noted. “That’s why so many scientists are glad to have Barbara Mikulski on their side.”

An early proponent of a stepped-up national commitment to science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, education – “In order to out-innovate . . . we must first out-educate,” she says – Mikulski has, through the years, also steered billions to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), most recently in the wake of Hurricane Sandy; pushed for sizable funding increases for the National Science Foundation and the FDA, and waged a hard-fought battle to double funding for NIH. Its federal check grew from $13.6 billion in 1998 to $27 billion in 2003.

“NIH would never have been what it is today but for her stewardship,” says lobbyist Kelly.

She’s credited with helping to create the Office of Women’s Health at NIH, and she made sure women were included in research protocols. She was outraged when a major study on the use of aspirin to prevent heart attacks contained not one female subject. Told that women’s hormones made for less reliable results, Mikulski snapped: “My hormones rage because of comments like that.”
Nowhere has Mikulski made more of an impact than in space. “Every issue has one person who can be counted upon to jump up when it’s threatened. For space, it’s Barbara Mikulski,” says Keith Cowing, editor of NASA Watch.

Since entering the Senate, Mikulski has doggedly defended NASA, especially the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., its hub for space exploration and scientific discovery, fighting off proposed cuts and once a threatened shutdown, and pushing for resources to expand its mission and capabilities. In certain spheres — planetary sciences and astrophysics, for instance — she’s helped Goddard, as well as the Applied Physics Lab, compete for missions with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

“Go back 15 years in planetary science, APL and Goddard weren’t on the map,” says Alan Stern, former chief of NASA science programs. “They needed a jump start, a chance to shine. She made that possible. The taxpayer always gets a better shake when there’s competition.”

Her name is synonymous with the Hubble Space Telescope, a NASA crown jewel, albeit one with a tortured history that ate deeply into Mikulski’s political capital. Hailing the Earth-orbiting reflector as “the greatest scientific instrument since Galileo’s telescope,” she fought to maintain development funding even as costs escalated. But after the telescope’s 1990 launch, when the first blurry images revealed a major flaw in its mirror, a furious Mikulski called the telescope a “techno turkey” and prodded NASA to fix the optics. The agency complied, installing what Mikulski called “the most expensive contact lens ever built.” Three more shuttle missions to service and upgrade the telescope over the next decade made it what NASA officials called “the most productive space and science mission” in the agency’s history. But Hubble’s troubles weren’t over. After the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe canceled all future repair missions to Hubble, citing safety concerns for the shuttle crew. Mikulski wanted a second opinion, and persuaded O’Keefe to seek an independent review before closing the book on the Hubble. In 2006, O’Keefe’s successor, Michael Griffin, approved a final shuttle mission to repair, upgrade, and extend the life of the Hubble. Mikulski led a standing ovation at Goddard.

By now, the Hubble is one of NASA’s longest-lasting science missions, credited with helping to discover dark energy and determine the age of the universe, and continues to provide stunning images. Mikulski’s name graces the data center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, one of the largest astronomy archives in the world. And Nobel Laureate Adam Riess named an exploding star spotted by the Hubble the “Supernova Mikulski.”

An iconic Hubble photo dubbed “The Eye of God,” signed by grateful Goddard employees, hangs in Mikulski’s office.

Across the Aisle

In the past few years, Mikulski has waged a similarly determined defense of the next-generation telescope, named for NASA’s second administrator. Billed as 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, its price tag swelling from an original $1.6 billion to $8.7 billion, its scheduled launch moved from 2011 to 2018. Frustrated by the escalating costs, House Republicans threatened to cancel the project two years ago, with Representative Wolf, who chairs the House counterpart to Mikulski’s science subcommittee, leading the charge. Mikulski, finding the increases and delays hard to defend, warned NASA that “my support is not unconditional.” Assured of caps in costs and regular Government Accountability Office reviews, she persuaded the Senate to provide $530 million for the telescope for FY2012 – and eventually persuaded Wolf, who’d set the House’s budget for the Webb at zero, to agree to the full amount.

“The reality is the House zeroed it out because we wanted to force this issue of how are you going to deal with the cost overruns, particularly when we’re in these tight, tight budget times,” Wolf says of his negotiations with Mikulski. “I supported the Webb. She very much supported it. We just came at it from a different approach. I don’t think it was really as much of a tug or difference as it was a process. I think what we did forced NASA and the GAO and others to pull up their socks and tighten their shoelaces to get the project back on.” Mikulski didn’t lack leverage in dealing with Wolf since she funds NSF, headquartered in northern Virginia. One legislative observer said she and Wolf often appear to work as a “good cop, bad cop” team.

Among the first calls Mikulski made on learning she would be appropriations chair was one to Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who sits beside her as the senior Republican on both the full Appropriations Committee and the Science Subcommittee. In an example of common interests trumping partisanship, both have NASA centers in their states, and they present a powerful and united front on space issues. Mikulski refrained from supporting President Obama when he canceled the Constellation program, a moon-landing mission Shelby championed, in 2010. More recently, she refused to back White House-proposed cuts in the Space Launch System (SLS) based at Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “I’ll be very blunt,” Mikulski told a roundtable of space business executives in April. “With Senator Shelby as my vice chairman, we can’t cut Orion and SLS. That’s the political reality.”

In return, said one Capitol Hill observer, “no one’s going to mess with her telescope.”

“I think we share a lot of the same hopes for the country and for the future,” Shelby says of his relationship with Mikulski. “A lot of it is math, science, and engineering — it’s so important for the future of this country and the competitiveness of this country and job creation in this country.”

Across-the-aisle cooperation with Shelby, Wolf, and others and her ability to make deals – in spite of a reputation as one of the “meanest” senators, according to regular magazine surveys of Capitol Hill staffers – point to a common misunderstanding about Mikulski, say those who’ve worked with her. Though aligned with traditionally liberal causes – she’s a strong advocate for Obama’s health care act, voted against the war in Iraq, and has led the charge on women’s issues like pay equity – she’s more pragmatist than ideologue. “She’s able to find the sweet spot that allows her to get something passed,” says Thomas S. Kahn, Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee and a former Mikulski aide. “That’s why she’s extremely effective. I think there’s a misperception sometimes that she’s extremely liberal and unwilling to compromise – and that’s flat wrong. She’s committed to progressive politics, but at the same time, she’s committed to getting something done.”

In her first few months as Appropriations chair, in fact, Mikulski took some flak for agreeing to items she didn’t support, such as pay freezes for federal workers, a provision that allows biotech companies to escape litigation, and an amendment to a temporary spending measure that restricts National Science Foundation grants in political science. The American Political Science Association called that amendment “a devastating blow to the integrity of the scientific process at the National Science Foundation,” and scientists of all disciplines, and academicians, were alarmed. “A lot of us wondered why she gave in to that,” says Samuel Rankin, chairman of the Coalition for National Science Funding. Mikulski has defended her acquiescence on such issues as compromises necessary to avoid a government shutdown.

Though Appropriations is traditionally one of the least partisan committees on the Hill – everyone wants money – it can’t escape the current budget impasse in Congress and a general shift away from comity and compromise. Many Republicans, including Shelby, are in no rush to cancel the across-the-board, automatic “sequestration” cuts since they’ve already helped reduce the deficit. “It’s probably a brutal process but not a bad policy,” the Alabama Republican says.

Mikulski, in contrast, has spent much of the past year railing against sequestration. Visiting agencies in her subcommittee’s jurisdiction, she has highlighted such blunt-force consequences as a $1.5 billion cut “right into the heart of biomedical research” at NIH, resulting in 700 fewer new grants nationwide in the next year – any one of which could have led to the next breakthrough in Alzheimer’s, a disease that afflicted her father, or cancer or autism, she says. “I don’t want a lost generation of future scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.”

Breaking through congressional gridlock will test Mikulski’s combination of grit and pragmatism. So, too, will the growing ideological divide on climate change that clouds traditional bipartisan support for research. While the House Science panel was taking a whack at NASA’s Earth observation programs – which study the effects of climate change – Mikulski’s subcommittee called on the agency to “answer fundamental questions concerning the ways in which Earth’s climate is changing.”

But some on both sides of the aisle say she possesses the right ingredients for hard-won compromise. “One of the people I’ve learned to listen to and listen to closely is Barbara Mikulski,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after Senate Democrats prevailed in a sparring match over executive branch nominees. “Here’s the advice that she gave to all of us a few minutes ago, direct quote: ‘Colleagues, no gloating — maximum dignity.’” It’s advice that has served her well during a history-making career in Congress. “Her greatest gift right now,” says GOP strategist Dyer, “is that when Barbara Mikulski speaks, people listen.”

By Susan Baer, a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Cover Illustration by Polly Becker. Photo Courtesy of NASA