Association Affairs

Forum on S&T policy spotlights basic research, public trust

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Science  29 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6238, pp. 984
DOI: 10.1126/science.348.6238.984

John Holdren (left) and Rush Holt

PHOTO: AAAS/CARLA SCHAFFER

The importance of basic research for the nation's scientific and economic future was a recurring theme as more than 400 elected officials, government and business leaders, researchers, educators, and others gathered for the 40th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Participants at the conference, held on 30 April and 1 May in Washington, DC, explored strategies for nurturing research and innovation, at the federal level and beyond, during times of continuing fiscal austerity.

Several science-funding bills were in play on Capitol Hill as the conference convened, but legislators had not proposed a replacement for the expired congressional deal that had offset some of the worst effects of the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. In sessions throughout the conference, participants delved into the factors driving the tight budget environment.

Many speakers echoed a call to better support basic research, including Rep. Jim Cooper (D–TN), Flavia Schlegel, assistant director-general for natural sciences at UNESCO, and France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation. “Our nation's future, including our preparedness for that future, depends on innovation,” Córdova said. “Innovation in turn depends, in large part, on discovery, and discovery is fueled by basic research. This pursuit is not discretionary.”

“A lot of folks think of basic research as a sort of frivolous approach where we're indulging the whims of scientists who just want to follow their curiosity,” said John Holdren, White House science and technology adviser, when AAAS CEO and Science Executive Publisher Rush Holt asked Holdren what he most wished the general public understood about science. Without investing in basic research and “the effort simply to understand more fully the universe, our world, ourselves, we are undermining our future,” Holdren said.

Researchers whose work is targeted as an example of wasteful government spending need to do a better job explaining the value of their work, panelists agreed in a session on defending grants against unjustified attacks. The importance of engaging with the public, through storytelling, data-sharing projects that seek public feedback, and other strategies, also took center stage in a session on public opinion and policy.

William Press, a computer scientist and computational biologist at the University of Texas at Austin (and a former AAAS president), urged scientists to separate facts and value judgments, in order to gain the trust of a public that is skeptical about science. Speaking in the William D. Carey lecture, Press outlined two quite different story lines for science—one tied to research, discovery, and innovation and what “can” be done, the other related to educating the public and advocating for what “should” be done. “Both are valuable,” he said, but scientists should take care to distinguish between them.

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