News Room > New Coalition to Push for Biology "Writ Large"

ESA NewSource, Autumn 2002
The Newsletter of the Ecological Society of America


New Coalition to Push for Biology "Writ Large"
Peter Farnham, CAE

The budget of the National Institutes of Health has grown dramatically in recent years, and deservedly so. If the lat installment of the five-year doubling campaign is completed as scheduled this year, the NIH's budget will have grown from $13 billion to over $27 billion since 1999. This is great news for the American people, who for decades to come will enjoy better health and the many economic benefits that have already started to flow from the key decision Congress made in 1999 to begin the doubling.

However, NIH's success has masked the poor state of federal funding for a lot of important biology that is not primarily biomedical. Government reports, and sometimes public statements about those reports, often bundle all biology together into one broad category known as the "life sciences." Thus, someone could see a reference to greatly increased funding for "life sciences" research and mistakenly conclude that all biological disciplines have enjoyed increases similar to those at NIH since 1999.

Unfortunately, some Washington decision-makers have apparently gotten this erroneous message. This misperception has led to calls for "balance" in science funding between the biological and physical sciences, without differentiating between biomedical science and such disciplines as agricultural science, environmental biology, ecology, taxonomy, plant biology, and fundamental cellular and molecular biology as funded at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and elsewhere.

This is the main problem that led to the creation of a new group on the Washington policy scene-the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition, or "BESC" for short. As BESC's mission statement puts it:

"While well-deserved support for the biomedical sciences has grown, federal support for the other biological sciences has declined. However, recent efforts calling for a balance between the "life sciences" and the physical sciences fail to recognize this distinction, thus jeopardizing support for nonmedical biology at a time when the nation needs such knowledge more than ever."

BESC may be small (only about a dozen members so far), poor (it collects no dues) and new (its first meeting was in September), but it is by no means helpless. For starters, many of the people participating in the coalition are among the most experienced science policy specialists in Washington, and collectively share decades of policy experience. This experience showed in the speed with which BESC began to make its influence felt.

As one of its first actions, BESC successfully lobbied the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF)-the major coalition supporting NSF-to write to the House Appropriations Committee about the NSF biology budget. The problem? The Senate Appropriations Committee had flat-funded biology at the NSF earlier this year, on grounds that biology as a whole was doing very well and the "balance" had to be restored between funding for biology and all the other sciences at NSF (most of which received double digit percentage increases in the Senate bill).

As the CNSF letter notes, "Modern scientific research is increasingly interdisciplinary. We would like to note in particular, that life scientists work in a broad array of disciplines ranging from agriculture to zoology, in addition to biomedicine. Many life scientists-particularly those working on biology of the natural world-depend upon funding from the National Science Foundation. In fact, NSF provides 65 percent of the academic funding for this type of research, which provides the knowledge we need as a society, to promote a healthier environment, a safer food supply, and to meet other natural resource challenges."

The result? The House Appropriations Committee recommended a 15 percent increase for biology funding at NSF in its version of the bill-a vast improvement over the 3.4 percent increase the Senate recommended.

Next, BESC cofounder Nadine Lymn, ESA's Director of Public Affairs, delivered a public statement on behalf of BESC at a recent meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which is considering recommendations to Congress on the "balance" issue. She urged PCAST to recognize the critical role nonmedical biological research plays in our nation's economy and in the health of the environment, and also that the life sciences are composed of many scientific fields, not just biomedical science. A PCAST member remarked afterward that the Council should keep these excellent points in mind as it considered what recommendations to make.

It is in such small victories that progress is measured…

Coalitions such as BESC can be powerful weapons in Washington policy debates, and BESC's early successes show that such groups do not need a lot of money to be effective. Contact Ms. Lymn to find out how you can help.

Peter Farnham is Public Affairs Officer for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). The views expressed in this article are his own.

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