Science Policy Groups Spread Across the Nation as Grad Students Take Charge over STEM Funding and Advocacy

Started by a group of graduate students at MIT during sequestration, the National Science Policy Group is a grad student spearheaded initiative through which science policy groups across the nation work together to advocate for science-informed policymaking, the continued support of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research, and exploration of other issues at the intersection of science and public policy. In addition to well-established science policy groups at schools like UPenn and Yale, newer groups are springing up, including at Penn State, University of Rochester, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Rutgers University. Through monthly national and regional conference call meetings, the groups share resources, like ideas for community outreach events, and support for newer groups garnering interest at respective schools. The groups will also host large coordinated events, like Congressional visits to member school’s local representatives in Washington DC. For more information about how the initiative got started, check out this article from MIT. If you are interested in participating here at Rutgers, keep informed about group activities through the Facebook page.

Intergalactic Planetary Research is Useful Too

Fellow blogger Michael posted this entry recently, and rather than just write a comment, I thought I would chime in on this issue as well. I won’t try to summarize completely his relatively short blog entry, but to put it briefly, Michael reminds scientists that to solicit funding from the public or public policy-makers, scientists must engage the public and inform them of the content and benefit of their scientific work.

I think a fair amount of what Michael said applies across-the-board to any variety of scholarship, and on the whole, I very much agree with his point and support it. However, I would like to pose a question. Scientific work may suffer a lack of funding due to waning interest, familiarity, or other such motivation on the part of the public and/or policy-makers, and I would agree that there is some onus on scientists to reinvest in relations with said parties. But is it not also true that statements such as “I personally don’t see the benefit, or “understand” or “like or “appreciate” this research (or science as a whole)” are not an excuse to fail to support the endeavors of scientists that work toward the public good, be it through basic or applied science, research or education?

I agree that public relations, outreach, etc. are very important, and raising awareness of the importance of science (or any other type of scholarship) would very much help bring back much-needed public support to the policy debate regarding funding for research. I suspect improving public education would do likewise. But I don’t think efforts to gain public support should hinge on whether the public is properly educated about a specific scientific endeavor, nor on whether this endeavor has an immediate & direct impact on the public good (e.g. climate change or healthcare). Basic research science and mathematics has sometimes been described as a money-pit into which we dump millions of dollars and get no “products” or “solutions” because researching bugs or quasars or quarks or Lie groups seems to be useless. This belies the fact that the applied sciences, as well as most fields of engineering, technology, communications, etc., rely heavily on the existing and expanding body of research in basic science and mathematics.

NASA is one example of a publicly-funded institution that supports not only scientific research but also its own space-exploration program. It has been a leader in the scholarship of astronomy, engineering of many types, and scientific leadership. Now its funding has been cut because policy-makers (and perhaps the public) think space exploration is not important.  And there are many reasons this is the case, among which I do count Michael’s important and very agreeable point. One role of scientists (or any researcher, publicly funded or not) is to communicate effectively the nature, role, and importance of his/her work to the general public. However, I am arguing that this should not extend so far as to require researchers to educate the public on the entirety of science, as this is impractical and infeasible.

Research is a long-term endeavor that navigates twists and turns, hinges on unknowns, and takes long spans of time. It also requires us to accept that projects may fail to produce good results, or that the results may not lead immediately to new solutions to applied problems. The same is true of funding scholarship and research — not every researcher will be successful as an “investment” in the short term, and some may leave research altogether, but we do not subject every first-year graduate student to an inquisition to determine if they will solve a world-changing real-life problem in 10 years and only fund those who demonstrate this. In aggregate, it is important to fund research (and researchers) sufficiently well without demanding guarantees of success, or an accounting of immediate gains from this investment.

Fight for your right — no, your privilege — to do science

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.