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Where Science and Policy Collide: Funding Academic Research

By now, you’ve likely seen endless articles upon articles upon articles eloquently written by scientists and advocates who have pled their case for funding scientific research. Despite these efforts, just two days ago, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price suggested additional funding cuts for institutional overhead costs that fund resources such as lighting, general lab equipment and maintenance expenses.

In addition to funding concerns, scientists have also raised concerns over the desultory efforts to appoint scientific advisors within the administration, most notably the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) and President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The lack of focus on science has left many researchers uneasy about the future funding landscape. Early career researchers can begin addressing these concerns by familiarizing ourselves with the ways in which science and policy intersect. Just as we do with our own research projects, we can develop new methods for outreach in our communities, interpret results to understand successful outcomes, and strategize for future directions.


Advocating for Science by Scientists

In graduate school, it’s easy to disengage from the public conversation about science. We spend late nights in lab and hours behind microscopes. When we do put effort into a presentation, it’s often limited to technical talks on our projects for other scientists. Yet the time has arrived where science has been put in the spotlight, and scientists, especially young scientists, have the chance to showcase the value of what we do in digestible ways. Fortunately, there are many resources allowing us to do just that. Advocating for science, by scientists, is a fundamental way of supporting the art itself. What are the most effective ways to do that? First, we should stay informed on potentially popular scientific topics in the media (scientists discovered HOW MANY new planets??) that non-scientists find exciting. Secondly, when advocating for science, we need to have some ready-made examples (CRISPR, anyone?) on how basic science research has translated into notable, usable technologies that anyone can appreciate.


Funding Basic Science in the US

The majority of scientific research in United States is funded by the federal government. The issue of scientific research funding can turn into a heated contention of debate in American politics. For the most part, legislation to fund biomedical research has been non-partisan. For example, the 21st Century Cures Act passed the 114th Congress in 2016 with a vote tally of 392-26 in the House and 94-5 in the Senate. This $6.3 billion legislation increases federal biomedical research funding and expedites the approval process of new medical devices and drugs. NIH Director Francis Collins cited several promising biomedical initiatives that will be funded through this program to have a more immediate impact on patient health.

It’s arguably easier to persuade the public that investing in biomedical research is worthwhile. The harder “sell” for scientists has been in the basic and social sciences. While many scientists argue the quest for truth and knowledge justifies their virtuous goal of pursing scientific research; the reality is some taxpayers out there do not support funding these initiatives with this motive in mind. Even if your intention is the noble quest for truth, selling your science as a long-term technology investment might be an easier sale to some. Excellent examples of long term investment that have led to biomedical breakthroughs include Penicillin, PCR, and most recently CRISPR. For more information, The National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering just released a new agenda for 2017 addressing the necessity for scientists to effectively communicate the enormous value of scientific research.

A 2014 report released by The American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS) argues that investment in science is an essential component of “The American Dream,” a term coined by historian James Truslow Adams to represent the opportunity for a better and fulfilling life for anyone, regardless of background. Investing in basic science research and technology development will keep Americans and American businesses competitive in tomorrow’s job market.


Happening Abroad: Europe and Science Policy

You may recall that totally nonchalant announcement from NASA recently on the discovery of seven new planets. What you may not recall is that study was an international collaboration between the United States and the European Research Council. Europe will face their own uncertain scientific funding climate while United Kingdom transitions out of the European Union. But the same principles apply. Approaching the public on the need for basic sciences can be achieved with the same formula: new methods for outreach, interpretive results, and strategies for future directions.

Depending on your area of expertise, there may be several “hot button issues” in your field that intersect with the current political landscape (ex. climate change, safety of vaccinations, renewable energy). As early career researchers, let’s get motivated and inspired to be a part of shaping what the future of scientific research looks like. Both in working at the bench, and outreach within your community, as early career scientists, we are the bright faces of the future. Whether you’re interested in developing new technologies now, or understanding the fundamentals of tomorrow’s big breakthrough, an active, transparent, engaged scientific community is essential for the continued success of scientific research around the globe.




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