23 December 2016

Everybody look what’s goin’ down

Posted by Jessica Ball


*Note: This post has been a while coming. I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief and anxiety over the past couple of weeks – for several reasons, and not just political ones – but part of dealing with them was writing this. I would very much like to get back to writing about geoscience and why I love it, but right now sharing some of what I learned as a science policy fellow is more important. I hope these resources are useful – and I will, in my free time, do my best to take my own advice.

Everybody look what’s goin’ down

There’s an important reason why I’m borrowing a lyric for a protest song for a blog post, and that reason is the very real fears that a lot of scientists are dealing with concerning the current political climate. I am writing this post mostly as a resource for my fellow scientists, but also for all those of you out there who understand the value of our work – and can help us.

A Washington Post article about AGU’s Fall Meeting encapsulates many of these fears well: Scientists like myself are afraid that the agencies who support our work, the funding sources that enable us to do our jobs, and the very veracity of our research will be under threat from some of the groups coming into power in Washington. The new administration has raised the possibility of cutting crucial basic and applied research programs and funding sources. The House Science Committee’s Twitter account posted links to anti-climate-science articles. Many of the president-elect’s nominees have taken anti-science stances or are affiliated with groups that do the same.

This is scary stuff, and it’s good that we’re talking about it, because it means scientists are paying attention to what’s going on in government. As someone who spent a year in DC attending hearings of several Congressional committees that control basic research funding, I’m both encouraged that people are finally paying attention – and really worried that it took this long.

I was only in DC for a year as a policy fellow, but what I saw in some hearings on Capitol Hill scared and dismayed me. And this behavior is nothing new. It was going on for years before I got there in 2014, and it has been getting worse ever since. Various professional organizations – GSA, AGU, AGI, AAAS, and numerous coalitions – have been reporting on this behavior for years. But because it gets lumped under “policy”, many scientists don’t pay attention to it. What’s more, we don’t engage our political representatives to say, “Please work to stop this” or “my work is important, and here’s why”. I’ve encountered disdain and apathy for involving science in policy that’s baffling, aggravating and now, stands to have severe repercussions.

That hands-off attitude is a luxury scientists can no longer afford.

It’s not just the future direction of fundamental and applied research that stands to suffer, it’s our careers – something that I am acutely aware of as an early-career researcher. Here’s one good reason why: Congressional committees like the House Science Committee have direct control of the funding scientists rely on to have careers. In academic research, almost every research professor has to supplement their university salary with grant money, especially if they want to be paid over the summer – they do not get all their funding from the institution they work for. No government grants? No salary for three months of the year. No travel for research. No money to run a lab or do field work or buy supplies or pay their employees. And a very good chance of no job security because getting grants is necessary for tenure.

We, the people who are impacted by those decisions, need to have a say about how they’re being made and we need to stand up for the importance of our work. As Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in her Union Address at AGU’s Fall Meeting a few days ago, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” That’s why scientists have a responsibility to at the very least pay attention to what our legislators and administration are doing. For example, nearly every hearing that happens on Capitol Hill is open to the public and livestreamed, and in many cases they have transcripts. And they are worth watching. If you watched a fraction of what I saw in just a year, you would be as worried as I am about how scientific research is perceived by some groups.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legislators on both sides of the aisle fighting for scientists and their work. The ranking member of the House Science Committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, has been a staunch supporter of the NSF, NOAA and other groups whose research has been questioned. Senator Lamar Alexander has advocated doubling basic research budgets at federal funding agencies. Senator Lisa Murkowski has been a champion of scientific programs at my own agency, the U.S. Geological Survey. Senator Ed Markey has received awards for his long-time support of basic research at many different agencies. Scientists have champions, but they are not always the loudest or most influential voices, and there are not always enough of them, and they need our help.

Sharing outraged posts in the echo chamber of social media isn’t enough anymore. Know what else you (and I) need to do? At the very least, inform yourself from the primary sources (we are scientists, after all). Watch the hearings. Read the transcripts. Pay attention to what your legislators are doing in office and, if you can, take steps to let them know what’s important to you. Send letters. Call. Go on Congressional visits. Support the policy groups who advocate for science. Learn effective ways to communicate science and start sharing in your community (or farther afield). We don’t have to do it all, but please consider doing something.

And don’t assume that political goings-on don’t affect you. They have always affected you, even if you’re just now starting to listen up. Remember that voting is the beginning of making your voice heard, not the end.

To help you get started, here are a number of things I found useful while I was working in science policy:

A sampling of the coverage that this topic has received in the past two years:

Discussions from this year’s AGU Fall Meeting about science advocacy:

Some of the geoscience policy groups who deal with these issues:

Committees that deal with funding or legislation that impacts scientific research:

You can find an aggregate listing of all House and Senate Committee Hearings and links to their archived video at these sites:

Finally, GovTrack is a really useful website for tracking specific bills and members of Congress.