"Glocal" Science Advocacy

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Science  15 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5865, pp. 877
DOI: 10.1126/science.1155656

Here we go again. on 4 February, President Bush released his fiscal year (FY) 2009 budget request to the U.S. Congress, and the news for research funding is once again mixed. Some agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science, are proposed for very substantial increases, but others, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are slated for flat funding or worse. This news comes after a dismal FY 2008 science funding outcome. If the new Bush budget proposal is adopted, U.S. research will see its fifth consecutive year of decreased support (in inflation-adjusted constant dollars) as compared to the increasing research investments by other nations. The news is important not only for the U.S. scientific community but also for its many international collaborators.

What can be done about it? The traditional approach used by U.S. scientific societies and citizen advocacy groups has been en masse descents on Capitol Hill to plead with Congress for better treatment. This scheme has sometimes worked in the past, as Congress often provided larger increases for science than those proposed by the president. But the “attack on the Hill” has been marginally effective in recent years, and last year it didn't seem to work at all. So simply following the same game plan this year risks another failure.

CREDIT: GARRY NICHOLS/GETTY IMAGES

We should take up “glocal” science advocacy to complement the traditional approach. This strategy involves taking a global issue and making it meaningful to society at the local level. Scientists and citizen advocates should recruit their nonscience friends and neighbors to promote science funding to decision-makers. Recruiting efforts can be as simple as discussing science-related issues at dinner parties or as ambitious as meeting with community groups, school boards, or city council members. The appeal should be locally focused for two important reasons: Policy-makers often seem to listen better in their home districts, where they are less distracted by the press of life on Capitol Hill; and they need to see clearly that science funding is not only a national but a local issue for all their constitutents, not just those who are scientists.

This approach has long been urged by such leaders as former Congressman John Porter (R-IL), who with Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) led the successful efforts on the Hill to double the NIH budget during 1998–2003. But glocal science advocacy is not a strategy that is easily implemented. To make it work, the scientific community needs to change the way it relates to friends and neighbors about the scientific enterprise. That will require finding more effective ways to persuade them that science is not only fascinating but also central to them as individuals, because most major societal issues have a science component to them. On the other side, scientists must respond to concerns about how scientific advances will affect personal lives and things that matter in the community. The high visibility of embryonic stem cell research and the study of evolution exemplify the need for better public engagement and dialogue about the underlying science and its implications.

Glocal science advocacy will be a learned skill for scientists and nonscientists, so training programs are needed to help scientists better engage with the public and foster this approach. Some organizations, such as Stanford University's Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, Research!America's Paul G. Rogers Society for Global Health Research, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have good programs that can help guide scientists to become effective communicators, but many more need preparation of this kind. Every U.S. scientist should embrace glocal science advocacy as a meaningful part of the job. If the scientific community does not expand its efforts and try new approaches to influence investment in research, it risks, as Einstein put it, proving that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.”

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