Recalibrating expectations for U.S. science

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs

Spoiler alert: this is not an upbeat post, although it does offer a few hopeful spots…

As many in the ecological community already know, obtaining monetary support for conducting research is tough.  The number one federal agency that supports fundamental research in ecology is the National Science Foundation (NSF), funding about 65 percent of ecological research conducted at U.S. research institutions.  Many other agencies, from the Forest Service to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also play important roles in supporting ecological science, although mostly through their own agency scientists.

At NSF, the Biology Directorate has long been one of the most competitive, with a grant proposal success rate that now hovers around only 10 percent.  Ecologists have enjoyed support from other federal agencies, but those budgets are also sloping downhill.  Foundations, which also have provided support to the ecological community, are themselves facing financially harder times.  Things have gotten to the point that some older ecologists are candidly saying that they can’t in good faith recommend to students to go into the field of ecology due to the bleak outlook for making a decent living.  The situation seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.

As anyone following recent policy developments knows, a gloomy budget environment is clouding outlooks in Washington, DC.  Although many agencies, including NSF, have managed to keep their budgets fairly intact for the current fiscal year, the specter of cuts is getting closer—when the Budget Control Act kicks in to slash both defense and civilian budgets.

Yesterday’s, ScienceLive featured a chat with two long-time Washington science policy insiders, Michael Stephens (Association of Schools of Public Health) and Joel Widder (The Oldaker Law Group), who shared their opinions of what might be in store and responded to online questions.  Both said that NSF and the National Institutes of Health, as agencies supporting basic research, enjoy support by both Congress and the Administration.  But Stephens and Widder acknowledged that a world in which flat or declining budgets become the norm will present federal agencies with serious challenges on how to allocate their limited resources.

In response to a question about the role of politics in science, Widder stated that: “As long as the federal government is going to spend in excess of $130 billion on research and development annually, and taxpayers will be the ultimate source of that money, politics will be an inherent part of the science funding enterprise.”  Stephens pointed out that overall the amount of “political meddling” in science is minimal and that with a few exceptions, science remains well respected.  “And I believe beyond current funding crunches, which will continue for a number of years, politicians see science as investment in mankind and in the economy.”

Stephens noted that the fiscal year 2013 funding “battle” will commence with President Obama’s release of his budget blueprint on February 6.  Based on his experience over nine presidential election cycles during his time in DC, Stephens said that “it is hard to believe that the President or either party will want to kick off a highly contested election cycle with proposals to significantly cut science.”  However, he noted that “I am proved wrong often these days where past is not necessarily prologue.  If, however, 2013 turns out to be a bit less threatening, it will only in my mind reflect an extension of the 2012 ceasefire.  Federal funding for science cannot escape the impact of the broad, multi-year, deficit reduction effort which everyone knows is coming.”

Both Stephens and Widder agreed that young scientists can play an important role in articulating the vital role federal investment plays in science:  Said Widder: “In my experience—grad students and post docs can be among the best ambassadors for science because their passion and enthusiasm comes through in ways that Members of Congress and staff appreciate and remember.”  Added Stephens: “Their future is often precarious, even for the most promising young scientists, and this resonates with politicians.  They understand that these bright young minds, who love science, have other options if funding dries up for new folks.”

That’s a nice segue to encourage any EcoTone readers who are ESA graduate students to consider applying for this year’s ESA Graduate Student Policy Award.  Awardees will join others in the science community to meet with congressional offices during an especially daunting period and talk about science and its contributions.

The complete transcript of Live Chat: Can Science Spending Survive Partisan Politics? is available here.

Photo credit: Robert Hegna

 

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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