It may not seem as satisfying to talk about as an environmental issue, but talking to policymakers about federal investment in science is an important task. That’s what over twenty ecologists, field biologists, agronomists, animal scientists, and resource economists did last week.
In town for an event sponsored by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) and the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions (CoFARM) these scientists from around the country visited over 50 congressional offices, from New York State to Hawaii, to highlight the paybacks from the nation’s investment in science, and in particular, the biological and agricultural sciences. Highlighting the two agencies that fund the bulk of this research–the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)–participants pointed to the state and national benefits derived from this publically-funded research. For example:
o Field station data recorded at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary showed the relationship between the decline and recovery of bald eagles and the use of organochlorines.
o Data from the Sevilleta field station near Albuquerque helped scientists forecast the spread of Hantavirus and West Nile virus.
o University of Minnesota scientists discovered a bacteria “battery” that produces electric current when attached to a conductive surface. This discovery is being applied to efficiently convert wastewater compounds into electricity.
o Researchers identified the genes that regulate temperature tolerance in wheat in order to identify frost-susceptible varieties. This has enabled breeders to develop hardier winter wheat, which is vital in light of growing pressure to increase global food production.
Overall, research funded by NSF and USDA AFRI advances understanding and helps the nation develop solutions to some of its biggest challenges, such as invasive species, emerging infectious diseases, habitat loss, water availability and quality, food security, environmental degradation, and climate change. The budgets of both NSF’s biology directorate (BIO) and USDA’s AFRI have been essentially flat over the last 10 years, when adjusted for inflation (excluding boosts from the 2009 economic stimulus package). NSF BIO provides 68 percent of federal grant support for fundamental biological research at US universities and nonprofit research centers, while AFRI’s extramural grants fund research in plant health, food safety, renewable energy, and agricultural economics. For fiscal year 2011, NSF is requesting $7.4 billion while AFRI hopes for a significant boost that would put its funding at $429 million. During their meetings last week, the scientists expressed their hope that Congress would do its best to meet these budget goals.
Before the scientists hit the Hill they heard presentations from agency and congressional staff. The congressional staff member gave the group a pop quiz of sorts, asking them what they needed to remember to say during the course of their meetings. They knew the answer: to thank Congress (and the American public) for supporting the nation’s research and science education enterprise.