A Dangerous Signal to Science

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Science  24 Dec 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5705, pp. 2163
DOI: 10.1126/science.1108749

When you rush, you make mistakes. The recently passed U.S. budget for fiscal year (FY) 2005, finalized in a scurry to complete the congressional lame duck session, did more than just shortchange science. Perhaps worse, it sent a dangerous message that will reverberate throughout the global science and technology enterprise for a long time to come. Although homeland security and defense did receive notable increases in funding, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Environmental Protection Agency actually had their funding reduced from FY 2004 levels (Science, 3 December 2004, p. 1662). Other agencies received flat budgets or increases below the level of inflation. This is the third decrease for NSF research funding in its over-50-year history, a decrease that comes, embarrassingly, in the wake of a resolution passed in 2001 to double the NSF budget over the next 5 years. What was Congress thinking?

Lest we think this is a one-year alarming incident, analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) of the Bush administration's budget projections show the purchasing power of R&D investments declining over the next 5 years in all areas except homeland security, defense, and space (http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/guioutyr.htm).


This bad news comes at a time when science, already deeply embedded in modern life, will become increasingly vital to America's future prosperity and its competitive position in the world. Moreover, because science is increasingly global in character, decreased NSF support, so critical to much international collaboration, has implications for science that reach well beyond the United States.

The decrease in NSF funding will not only hurt basic science research programs but will seriously hamper efforts to improve science education, in which NSF plays a key role. Decreased science education funding is coming at a time when young people need greater science literacy to live full lives and when the United States increasingly needs a well-educated technical workforce to keep its industries onshore and competitive.

NIH-supported biomedical scientists may experience temporary relief, but their increase is below the rate of inflation. Moreover, the NSF cut leaves the increasingly interdisciplinary life sciences portfolio seriously unbalanced through its reduced support for mathematics, physics, and chemistry.

What to do? At a recent postelection forum sponsored by AAAS and Research! America, former Congressmen John Porter and Paul Rogers both emphasized the need for the research community to build stronger partnerships with its beneficiaries and patrons in the public. They particularly urged alliances with leaders in industry. Making the case for the support of science in partnership with those who will use our products to advance the public welfare strengthens it. Scientifically sympathetic members of Congress advise us again and again that messages from constituents about the importance of science have more political leverage than the occasional scientists who come to testify.

Reaching out to the public is not a strong tradition for the science community, perhaps because we may think that nonscientists cannot understand our work. We're wrong about that. As evidenced by the extent and high quality of science coverage in many national and local newspapers, the general public is excited when we share the thrill of scientific discovery.

Congressmen Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) and Rush Holt (D-NJ), two scientists currently in the U.S. Congress, frequently remind us that we really need grassroots support. Many of us have given talks to local clubs and lodges about scientific work and what it means. When we visit local schools, students and their parents can get a sense of the excitement of what we do. Alliances with leaders in local industry have a special kind of leverage, and science/industry partnerships can convince government representatives of the need to support science and its use for the benefit of society at large. Some 50 new members of the U.S. House and Senate give us a great opportunity to educate the national leaders of the future. Rather than lamenting our fate, we can mobilize our natural allies—the people we serve—to convince our policymakers not to make the same mistakes again.

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