19 June 2014

“Scientists…speak up!”

Posted by Jessica Ball


If any of you were following all the Twitter chatter from the AGU Science Policy Conference in DC this week, you might recognize Representative Donna Edwards’ exhortation to scientists who are worried about the legislative threats to the NSF’s merit review process (and funding). Rep. Edwards was invited along with Rep. Jim Moran and Rep. Scott Peters about the future of science in Congress, and all three panelists made some very strong points about scientists’ role in the legislative process. But this was the most important one, because, as Rep. Peters pointed out, we are speaking up “less than you would expect”.

When members of Congress point out that there’s a lack of scientific participation in the way our country runs – and in particular, the process that funds our basic research - then we’ve clearly got a problem. I think it links very well to the discussion going on at the two previous posts I’ve written on the topic of broader impacts in the geosciences, and I’d like to keep the conversation going – and reframe the request I made in slightly broader terms, as one very helpful email suggested.

First, the reframe:

What are the broader impacts of your work in the geosciences? Why is it important – and why should it be funded? Talk about it on the Geoscience Impacts blog.

That’s it. Forget the bit about where the funding comes from, don’t worry about mentioning specific grants if you don’t want to. Just think about this simple question – hopefully a question that you should be thinking about anyway when you’re presenting at a conference or talking to a job search committee or, yes, applying for your next grant. It’s something we should all be asking ourselves throughout our careers. Why is my work important?

I’m still posting about this because the point came up in the comments that a lot of people applying for grants don’t treat the Broader Impacts section very seriously. Personally, I think this is a really bad attitude to have as a scientist in general. Above all, we should be able to say something about why our work is important besides “It’s cool”. Of course you’re doing it because you think it’s cool – that’s why you’re a scientist! But that’s just a small part of why we study the Earth, and as scientists who receive support that comes from taxpayer dollars – dollars to which, I might point out, we ourselves are also contributing – we also have an obligation to explain why our work is worthy of that support. And that includes taking the time to think about broader impacts. (Your program administrator will appreciate it, since one of the things that Congress is pressing the NSF in particular to do is be more transparent about how grants are awarded and administered.)

Those of you who don’t follow Congressional happenings very closely (and I can totally understand if you don’t) probably won’t have heard this tidbit about what happened in the House last week. But here it is (via Science Insider), and it’s terrifying:

“Plant scientist Selena Ahmed has spent nearly a decade studying tea production in southwestern China. Representative Matt Salmon (R–AZ) speaks fluent Mandarin and has championed the cause of Chinese political dissidents.

“But despite their shared interest in the world’s most populous nation, the Arizona legislator is no fan of Ahmed’s work. In fact, Salmon doesn’t think that the National Science Foundation (NSF) should be funding her research on tea as a model system for understanding how a warming climate is putting stress on specialty crops and the impact of those changes on farmers.

“Late last month, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed. By voice vote the legislators passed an amendment to a NSF funding bill for 2015 that says the agency can’t spend any money next year on her project, part of a collaboration with former colleagues at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, where Ahmed did a postdoc.”

That’s right: the House of Representatives passed an amendment to a major piece of legislation that attacked a specific NSF-funded grant. This isn’t just the usual complaining and soapbox pontificating any more – it’s targeted legislation. That is terrifying. Even if this particular bill doesn’t go anywhere (and this year it will probably die in the Senate), the fact that a legislator would even conceive of that kind of attack, much less manage to pull it off, should be scaring those of you who rely on federal funding for your research.

It may seem like legislators operate in a vacuum here in Washington, but most people don’t see all the work that goes on behind the scenes – and that’s where science policy work comes in. My job right now is to help the policy experts at your professional societies prevent just these kinds of attacks from happening, and we can’t do it unless we have support from the people who are hurt by it. That’s why I’m still pushing this broader impacts campaign, and why I really hope that you’ll join the few who’ve already submitted to the blog.