Coons Outlines Policy and Advocacy Priorities in Support of Science

Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) delivered the 2017 William D. Carey Lecture at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum. | Mark F. Jones/CJVISIONS.com 

Delaware Sen. Christopher Coons delivered “a call to arms to the defense of science” at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum on March 27, identifying key priorities for Congress to advance the work of science and imploring scientists to step up as advocates for scientific discovery.

Coons called upon his colleagues to take three key actions in defense of science: ensure the federal government continues to make data generated by statistical agencies publicly available, launch a bipartisan effort to secure sustained federal funding for basic science research and pass an immigration reform bill that makes it easier for scientists to live, work and study in the United States and pushes back against travel bans.

“In short, I’m calling for all of us to work with Congress and fight for open data, open minds and open arms,” said Coons during the William D. Carey Lecture, which annually honors a leader in articulating science policy concerns.

The speech concluded the first day of the two-day Forum, now in its 42nd year. This year’s Forum featured discussions on the role of evidence-based science in policymaking, the science priorities of the new administration and key science-informed issues like the opioid epidemic and rising sea levels.

In its first few months, Coon said, the actions taken by the Trump administration have shown a disregard for science. He said, for instance, that the administration has been slow to nominate key appointees to scientific posts, noting that all but one of the 46 top science and technology appointments – including the president’s science adviser – remain vacant.  

“We need qualified STEM advisers in the administration across agencies to carry out their core missions and to help communicate and advocate for the direction of research and innovation vital to sustaining our economic growth and national security,” Coons said.

Additionally, President Trump has proposed budget cuts that would negatively impact a number of scientific agencies and limit the ability of the agencies to advance work vital scientific research, Coons said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would see its budget cut by $250 million, including the Sea Grant program that helps Delaware, among other states, protect its coastal ecosystems and economies, Coons noted. The Environmental Protection Agency would see its budget cut by more than a third, he added.

NASA, although it escaped steep proposed cuts, would see funding eliminated for one element of the Deep Space Climate Observatory. The observatory’s Earth viewing instrument will no longer gather observations that scientists can use to monitor factors related to climate change, said Coons.

Such proposed cuts reflect the administration’s willingness to move away from evidence and science that do not support its political agenda, Coons said. These “draconian” budget cuts also send a clear message that R&D is not a priority for the administration at a time when “America’s ability to lead the world in innovation is deeply at risk,” he added.

“When we take a look at the difference that federally funded science has made, it’s remarkable,” Coons said. NASA, for instance, has spurred advances in such diverse fields as food safety, clean energy and telecommunications, while the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have helped to create life-saving vaccines, he noted.

“Americans are unquestionably safer, healthier and more prosperous because of these innovations,” Coons said. These advances have been made possible through sustained R&D investment — as well as efforts to support the inclusion of women, minorities and immigrants in the scientific community in the United States, Coons said.

“Albert Einstein was a refugee. Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian refugee. All six of the U.S. Nobel laureates in 2016 were immigrants to the United States,” Coons said. “When we let fear of refugees and immigrants dictate public policy, we may well be stopping the next Einstein, Jobs or Nobel laureate from calling the United States their home.”

Coons called upon the scientific community to advocate the value of science to their elected representatives and the public.

These days, “publishing is not enough,” Coons said. The mission of scientists must include communicating in clear and accessible language the results of their work and outline the potential impacts of their findings for policymakers and the public, he said.

Coons said, “Speak out and make the case for investing in science, not just today but for the long term.”