The Way I See It: The importance of science advocacy


U.S. leadership in global science and technology (S&T) stands as one of America’s greatest traditions of the 20th century. In the past, most notably after World War II and the advent of the Cold War, leadership in the scientific world was often synonymous with a powerful global presence and a successful, progressive society. In recent years, shifting political priorities of policymakers and the American public have begun to eat away at federal funding opportunities for U.S. research and development (R&D). The continuing national debt crisis, coupled with the moral and ideological concerns surrounding several of the more prominent R&D issues, such as climate change, stem cells and energy policy, have pushed U.S. funding for S&T below a quickly rising global standard. In the face of a persistent decline in R&D funding, scientists and engineers must devote more time and effort toward keeping the economic and societal value of science in the public eye and advocate for it to hold a higher standing in the federal budget.

Kenneth Evans

Kenneth Evans

Over the last decade, our nation’s contribution to the total R&D worldwide expenditures has dropped from 38 to 31 percent, while Asia’s share (predominately China and South Korea) has surged from 24 to 35 percent, according to the National Science Board. This marked shift in global R&D funding demographics is not surprising, considering the recent trends in U.S. federal investment in S&T. Each of the top federal science agencies’ appropriations has remained mostly stagnant during the last decade. In fiscal years 2011 and 2012, the total federal R&D budget declined by 3.5 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively. President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget, currently under review in Congress, includes a 1.2 percent increase for R&D. However, inflation is estimated to grow by 1.7 percent in the coming year, which would effectively negate the growth in the R&D budget, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Obama has advocated for investment in R&D since the start of his presidential career. At a 2009 speech to the National Academy of Sciences, he said:

“At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

Kirstin Matthews

Kirstin Matthews

However bold his vision for the nation’s scientific future, many R&D-related topics have become highly politicized and progressively more contentious as the budget has tightened. As U.S. Rep. and physicist Rush Holt has noted, “A clash is under way in Washington, D.C., between two starkly different visions for the U.S. government’s role in R&D. The outcome of this debate will shape the nation’s scientific landscape for years to come.”

In order to influence this outcome, especially now as funding levels for federal R&D continue to decline, scientists and engineers must strengthen their lobbying efforts to keep science objective among policymakers. By actively engaging the public in media outlets, educational outreach and contacting politicians, scientists can push R&D back to a higher funding priority.

Scientists who do step into the public sphere, such as Holt, are often referred to as “civic scientists.” According to Neal Lane, a senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, a civic scientist “is someone who uses his or her knowledge, accomplishments and skills to help bridge the gap between science and society.”

Without actively making science relevant, clear and unbiased to politicians and the American public, scientists will find that this gap only widens.

Kenneth Evans is a graduate intern for the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program who is working toward a Ph.D. in applied physics under Professor Douglas Natelson. Kirstin Matthews is a fellow in science and technology policy at the Baker Institute.

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