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Scientists Need to Be More Visible to Public and Lawmakers to Avoid Deep Funding Cuts, Policy Experts Say

Federal funding for science is facing intense, sustained budget pressure because of the weak economy and historic budget deficits, but the impact could be eased if scientists step up efforts to engage lawmakers and the public, experts said at AAAS.

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Federal funding for science is facing intense, sustained budget pressure because of the weak economy and historic budget deficits, but the impact could be eased if scientists step up efforts to engage lawmakers and the public on the benefit of investing in research, experts said at AAAS.

While many programs in the federal budget are facing cuts, research funding is particularly at risk, Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, a medical research advocacy group. That’s because most lawmakers tend to be unfamiliar with science and research, and very rarely hear from scientists or the public about its importance.

“Policy makers aren’t paying a lot of attention to science, [and they] often misrepresent it,” Woolley said at the AAAS Leadership Seminar on Science and Technology Policy. “[They] don’t even know how to think about it and talk about it, because, I would say, the science community isn’t doing much to help out.”

John Edward Porter, a former U.S. representative from Illinois and current chairman of the board for Research!America, also urged scientists to become more active in political campaigns to help inform candidates about scientific issues and to raise those issues during campaigns. The 2012 elections will define the country’s direction for years to come, he said, so it’s critical to increase outreach now.

Today, science and other programs are “competing for the smaller and smaller amount of money that is available to fund them,” Porter said. “So it is an extremely tough time for science research funding, and why all of you have to get involved in this fight.”

Woolley and Porter gave their presentations before 35 attendees at the eighth annual AAAS Leadership Seminar, held 14-18 November in Washington D.C. The seminar was organized by the AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs.

Public opinion polls show that while people respect scientists and think they contribute to society, only one-third of those asked to name a living scientist could respond, Woolley said, and even fewer had a correct answer. (Stephen Hawking topped the list, followed by scientists who regularly appear on television.)

But polls also show that the public thinks basic science research is important, and over the past year, those polled have grown increasingly concerned that the United States is at risk of losing its competitive edge as a research leader, Woolley said. Strong federal funding for research would also help the economy, she said, because it leads to technical innovations that stimulate economic growth, something the public also understands. The challenge is in getting people to make those concerns known to politicians who rarely debate a science-related bill.

“Scientists, like those elected to public office, also serve the public’s interest,” Woolley said. “So, for that reason, they need to be more visible and accountable, and more willing to engage with the people who are making the investment in science.”

Currently, most scientists say they spend very little or no time on outreach. When asked why not, most said they don’t have time, don’t know how, or aren’t being asked to do it, according to recent surveys Woolley presented. But most researchers receive or benefit from public funding, and Woolley said they owe it to the public to try to explain what they are working on and why it matters.

She suggests starting small: At the next family gathering, researchers could try telling non-scientists about their work, and in return learn what questions people have. Writing letters to the editor or opinion pieces for publication are also valuable tools, she said, since politicians take notice, and they may lead to news coverage.

Those kinds of outreach are important for all researchers to do, Porter added, because politicians respond most to their own constituents’ concerns. Unless politicians hear directly from scientists about their research and why it matters, they won’t continue to fund it. It has become particularly important since the terrorist attacks of 2001, when national security and defense spending began to take priority, leaving science funding essentially flat, he said.

Outreach was the key in 1995, Porter recalled, when a new Republican majority in the House decided it wanted to cut funding for the National Institutes of Health by 5% each year for five years. As the chair of the Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, he invited Nobel laureates and business leaders to visit then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich to explain the importance of NIH research. That was the end of the cuts, he said.

“You have to impact the decision makers with your expertise,” Porter said. “They will listen to you. But they won’t listen to you if they don’t hear from you.”

To have an even greater effect in this upcoming election year, he said, call a candidate’s or elected official’s campaign and volunteer to be his or her science adviser. The majority of politicians have no experience in science, so a scientist could be an important influence on a candidate.

Increasing support will be critical for the United States to maintain its leadership position in science, technology, and innovation, Porter said. Other countries, including India, China, and Singapore, are putting more and more money into scientific research, he said, and could eventually outpace the United States. “We’ve got to maintain those leads and we’ve got to be the go-to place we’ve always been for science and technology,” he said. “We’ve got to convince people that this is the economic destiny of America.”

Jalonne White-Newsome, an environmental health scientist who recently began working on science policy issues at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the speakers had made her seriously consider volunteering to be a science advisor for a politician in her Virginia district.

While she has participated in grassroots efforts before, White-Newsome said she previously hadn’t considered getting more involved in politics. She felt that since she wasn’t famous and was only one voice, no one would listen. “I think I just need to get over my fear of not having all the answers and put it out there.”