Researchers Shape New Strategies For a Time of Budget Turmoil

A continuing commitment. John P. Holdren, the White House science and technology adviser, told a standing-room-only crowd that President Obama considers R&D funding crucial for U.S. economic strength.

Just 2 years ago, American science seemed to be on the cusp of a new era, with Washington strongly backing research to drive economic growth and address a range of challenges. But as scientists and policy experts gathered recently for the AAAS Annual Meeting, they were confronting a new landscape where budget crises and shifting politics could jeopardize the nation’s power of innovation.

It was a recurring theme throughout the 5-day meeting: Whether the subject was new energy sources, the university of the future, or particle physics, discussions frequently turned to the potential impact of federal and state budget cuts—and to the need for new strategies and alliances that will allow science to move ahead.

Addressing a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1500 people, White House science and technology adviser John P. Holdren said that President Barack Obama remains firmly committed to scientific research. And, he added, Obama’s concerns reach beyond research spending to supporting the larger science enterprise, from education to the commercialization of discoveries.

“It’s not automatic that the United States will be No. 1 in science, technology, and innovation,” Holdren told reporters before his address. “This is something that has to be cultivated. It has to be invested in. The president has been very clear that he wants us to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the competition.”

The 177th AAAS Annual Meeting convened in Washington, DC, from 17 to 21 February, drawing several thousand researchers, policy experts, and educators, plus hundreds of U.S. and foreign journalists. Under the theme “Science Without Borders,” the meeting explored the global frontiers of research and contemporary policy issues.

Alice S. Huang

In an address marking the end of her term as AAAS president, Alice S. Huang described how her own practice of science diplomacy—in the lab and in work with Asian nations—has convinced her of its power to engage others and even address challenges such as poverty and women’s economic development. But for U.S. science diplomacy to be effective, said the Caltech virologist, “we need to avoid arrogance and Western-centric views and behave as true partners in advancing international science as well as the welfare of all citizens.”

In an increasingly global science culture, experts said at the meeting, cuts in U.S. science would likely be felt worldwide: fewer cooperative research projects; diminished ability to compete against rising science and technology powers; and eroding U.S. influence in areas such as education and research integrity.

Compromise remains possible, but the prospects are not bright—indeed, some analysts see the risk of a government shutdown later this spring.

Patrick Clemins, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, outlined critical elements of the conflict during a budget symposium: Obama in fiscal year 2012 would hold overall R&D spending to an increase of 0.5% over 2010 levels; nondefense R&D, however, would rise 6.5%. Republicans, in their plan for 2011, propose cuts of 4.4% in overall R&D, and 5.1% for nondefense R&D from current spending levels.

The continuing economic crisis is already creating unprecedented financial pressure at state universities and colleges, said Howard Gobstein, executive vice president for research, innovation, and STEM education at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. In 2009, 85% of higher education institutions reported state funding cuts averaging 11%. Last year, 60% reported reductions averaging 7%. This year, Gobstein said, cuts exceeding 20% have been imposed at some institutions.

Gobstein is confident that universities can adapt and preserve their commitments to teaching, research, and civic engagement. Still, he worries that education at public research universities “will become less and less accessible to most of our citizens as tuition soars to partially replace cuts in government support.”

With change happening so broadly and so swiftly, many at the Annual Meeting emphasized the importance of adapting, of finding new ways to have an impact.

In an event organized by AAAS and 10 other science organizations, 35 climate scientists came to Washington, DC, and spent a day meeting with members of Congress, including some in the new Republican majority in the House who have supported drastic reductions in funding for conservation and research on energy.

The scientists took an unconventional approach: Rather than debate the existence of climate change, they focused on related local issues such as childhood asthma and agricultural pests. Sometimes the reception was chilly, but other meetings with climate skeptics ended with agreements to keep an open line of communication.

In the view of Rob Young, a professor specializing in coastal geology at Western Carolina University, that was good news. “Success,” he said, “from my point of view, will really just be an e-mail asking about coastline erosion—anything to bridge the gap.”