Science costs money: Fighting for publicly funded research

After eight years of higher education, it had never occurred to me that I had the right to speak with my representatives. I voted in every election, but that’s as far as I thought to take my involvement in politics. It wasn’t that I was indifferent. I felt strongly about political issues, especially improving the dismal outlook for publicly funded scientific research.a But meeting with lawmakers, in my mind, was reserved for important people in expensive suits with briefcases full of important documents—or cash.

It just didn’t seem that I had any say in the situation. I worried that lawmakers could never be convinced to support much research that didn’t promise to cure a disease or produce a new weapon, at least here in the United States. By the time I reached graduate school, I took for granted that funding in academic science was scarce, competition was fierce and post-graduate employment was hard to come by. The situation was impossible to ignore. Productive research groups I knew had lost funding, sometimes to the extent that they were forced to shut down, damaging or ending the careers of the scientists who built them.

Although I wasn’t deluded enough to reject this reality altogether, I still found it deeply unsettling. I just couldn’t reconcile the lack of support for research with the opinions of non-scientists around me. Any general news source has a science section, and several pop science websites have accumulated a wide following. When I’m chatting about science with non-scientists, I see their eyes light up whenever I manage to explain a difficult concept clearly. If their constituents care about science, lawmakers should take heed, yet public interest doesn’t seem to have improved science’s funding crisis.

It’s easy to place all the blame on the politicians—and voters who support them—with an extreme anti-science bent. But although they may be very vocal, they don’t represent the majority. Many do understand some of the the benefits of research to society and could be swayed to support it more openly, if only they knew that it was necessary.

Most lawmakers probably don’t know that the cost of research is increasing or that funding shortages stifle promising research and contribute to an unhealthy atmosphere in academic science. And how could they, when the people most qualified to alert them to the problem often don’t speak up? Framing the issue this way reveals one of its hidden roots: by letting learned political helplessness overcome my resolve to improve the future of research, I was betraying my own cause. By assuming that I didn’t have the money or clout to meet with my representatives, I had unwittingly become part of the problem.

Last week, I decided to set my preconceptions aside and headed to the San Francisco District Office. Hoping to make a good impression, I came armed with a fact sheet I had prepared in advance detailing the contributions of research to California’s economy and how the dearth of federal funding made state support more important than ever. For one hour, I swapped my hooded sweatshirt and jeans for my only professional-looking attire, a dusty skirt suit I had last worn at a research conference over four years ago. I put my purse—a foreign substitute for my backpack—through a metal detector and got lost for several minutes in a massive government building. Luckily, I hadn’t made the mistake of wearing heels, or I would have hobbled in late to my meeting with Beverly Ng.b

Beverly is the Senior District Representative in the office of California State Senator Mark Leno. A little background research told me that the senator would probably support my cause. Although there wasn’t any specific legislature about research funding in California this season,c I took the opportunity to explain the extent of the funding crisis and how it directly affects the quality and quantity of research. Although my lack of political experience definitely showed, Beverly graciously listened as I prattled on for several minutes.

The entire experience was surreal. I was apparently being taken seriously after a lifetime of assuming (rather unscientifically, in retrospect) that my opinions didn’t matter to the people at the top. She even said she would pass on my fact sheet to the senator and gave me specific suggestions about other people to contact. But most surprisingly of all, she asked me about my own research and seemed genuinely interested in my response.

Although my single meeting with Beverly will likely not make a major impact on policy in the short term, I’m feeling more optimistic about the future of research and my ability to influence it. By meeting with more representatives and encouraging others to do the same, maybe I can play some small role in turning the tide toward the future I envision. I guess I’m going to need to upgrade this dusty old suit.

Questions or comments? Post them below!

a It goes without saying that improving the outlook for publicly funded research (and researchers) will also require addressing other issues, such as publishing practices, how we train future scientists and maybe even the number of future scientists we train. Those are subjects for another post, or more realistically, several posts.
b A program run by the American Institute of Biological Sciences helped me set up this meeting. If you’re in biology and interested in policy, it’s definitely worth going through them, since they provide a free training webinar that really helped me understand what to expect. Otherwise, individual lawmakers usually have forms on their websites to schedule meetings with them. You don’t have to be a scientist to discuss research funding with your representative!
c Information about what legislature has been passed or will be up for vote is readily available online, and to my surprise, most of it is written in plain English. At least on California’s legislative information website, there’s even a nice search feature.

© Nicole Haloupek 2015, All Rights Reserved.

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