At the American Physical Society March Meeting a few weeks ago — the biggest confluence of physicists in the world, with over 9000 in attendance — there was a session titled “American Science and America’s Future.” Now, who could miss a session with a grandiose name like that? Well, it seems that a lot of people could, since the cavernous ballroom they reserved for it was less than 10% full. To be fair, I attended a similar session last year, which featured much better attendance. Having a Nobel Prize-winner on the panel probably helped. But this year’s disinterest disturbed me, as did the small number of people who signed the periodic form letters APS prepares for members to send to Congress.
The fact of the matter is that most of us do science at the pleasure of the public. We as a society have decided that scientific research is something we value — ostensibly because of its future economic dividends but also because, frankly, it’s one of the things that makes a civilization great — and since it’s something the market won’t carry out on its own, we pay for it with taxes. So our ability to continue the scientific research enterprise that has made the United States the most powerful economic, cultural, and intellectual force in the world rests squarely on taxpayers, and more importantly, their political representatives, continuing to value what we do. If they don’t, our privilege could be taken away.
My fear is that many scientists view this support as an entitlement, a right to follow their scientific curiosity wherever it takes them on taxpayer expense. This hubris is not only selfish, but dangerous. Without proper advocacy and education, the public and the political leadership are at serious risk of losing sight of science’s value to society. There is already frequent grumbling about cuts to federal funding agencies, widespread ignorance of scientific issues affecting society like climate change and healthcare, and the growing weaknesses in science education in the U.S. While the NSF and NIH aren’t going to shut down anytime soon, it’s very possible that science funding could face gradual cutbacks or at least radically slowed growth, especially in the face of competing funding priorities. If and when this happens, scientists shouldn’t blame the ignorant public or politicians — they will have to blame themselves, because that ignorance is our fault.
So the time is now for scientists to take action. Get in touch with your political representatives, both local and federal. Write letters to the newspaper. Be active in your community, so your neighbors can be in that small minority of folks who know a real, live scientist. Get involved in public outreach. But whatever you do, don’t take your research support for granted. Let’s get the science that we all pay for with our taxes into the public consciousness.