Does Big Science Want a Change in Congress?

Like a baseball player who bats lefty and righty, Big Science sways politically with the issue at hand -- often backing the party with the fattest wallet.

Researching our changing environment, building a new spaceship, using stem cells to find the cure for serious diseases -- these scientific endeavors require major funding and political support. And so Big Science -- which includes NASA and other government agencies, national labs like Lawrence Berkeley near San Francisco, and companies like Merck that develop new drug treatments -- tends to sway politically with the issue at hand, backing the party with the biggest bucks.

For example, stem-cell researchers support Democrats, said Kirstin Matthews, a fellow at Rice University and a noted stem-cell expert. Matthews told that the idea of a Republican-controlled Congress makes some scientists nervous, especially when it comes to possibly overturning legislation such as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that prohibits embryonic stem cell research.

“Scientists are afraid that, with a Republican majority, recent court cases won't be resolved by Congress,” she told Matthews cites Sherley vs. Sebelius, a case that has delayed National Institute of Health funding for stem-cell research.

Meanwhile, climate-change researchers might surprisingly side with the Republicans -- if it means better tax incentives for their research and development work, said Babak Zafarnia, the president of Praecere Public Relations, which deals with NASA funding and policy. (Zafarnia was also a political aid.) That said, he noted that Democrats are usually the ones who support the research, and the researchers tend to sway toward a Democrat-controlled Congress.

In terms of space exploration, the concern is over a change in Congress, not necessarily who will take control of the House and Senate.

Dr. Barrett Caldwell, an Aeronautics and Astronautics professor at Purdue, fears that much of the work to secure space funding would be undone if Congress flips. He says a shift would also throw NASA development work into chaos.

“We cannot have a robust development program that shifts directions every 12-18 months, or gets defunded and refunded based on short-term convenience,” he told

Unlike Big Tech, which has a record of making campaign contributions mostly to Democrats, Big Science is more evenly divided, Zafarnia told Companies such as Pfizer, Amgen, and Abbott are all equally split in their political contributions, he said. Yet, science funding is still something usually associated with Democrats.

“Assuming the House flips Republican, if they push to extend the Bush tax cuts, it could be harder to pass federal funding for the sciences into law,” Zafarnia said.

The idea that Big Science tends to support causes rather than particular parties bears out in the political contributions of major Fortune 500 companies.

For example, Merck gave $15,000 donations in equal measures to both the GOP and the DNC, according to United Health, listed at number 21 on the Fortune 100, gave 56% to Democrats and 43% to Republicans, per However, Medco, ranked 35 on the Fortune 11, was a top contributor to the campaigns of several Democratic campaigns, including those for Alcee Hastings (D-FL) and Betty Sutton (D-OH), per Open Secrets.

So is Big Science mostly for Democrats?
While Big Science may change its tune based on who has the political capital, there is more widespread support among scientists for a Democrat-controlled Congress, Dr. Jeff Schweitzer, a science author and speaker, told

Schweitzer blasted Republicans for “contaminating science and science funding with religion” by violating the First Amendment and basic scientific principles. He said funding for stem cell research and climate change dry up during Republican eras.

“History has shown that Democrats offer stronger support for science than Republicans," he told "This was proven to an extreme during the eight years of the Bush Administration.”

“To understand why those interested in supporting science root for a Democratic victory, we need only remember what happened [to science funding] the last time Republicans were in control,” Schweitzer added.

Like Big Tech, major scientific corporations have contributed more to Democrats than to Republicans -- although without quite as much of a left-leaning bent. PhRMA, the trade group that represents the biomedical field, contributed 62% to Democrats and 38% to Republicans last year. Wes Metheny, the senior vice president of PhRMA, told that this ratio reflects the current make-up of Congress.

“We look at voting records to determine who we are going to support -- and we support those who vote for policies that foster and support future medical advances that are critical to patients and U.S. competitiveness,” Metheny said.

Is there a trend, with Big Science supporting one side of the aisle or the other? For the most part, it depends on the issue. But Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, argues that science is a bipartisan subject that favors no specific political persuasion.

“Disease and disability affects everyone," she told "So biomedical research continues to enjoy bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans.”