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Forum: Science Communication Critical Amid Budget Uncertainties

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With the U.S. presidential election looming and climate-change impacts expected to intensify, the nation’s top science advisor on Thursday urged scientists and engineers to communicate the value of science to society, uplift young innovators, and expand international research cooperation.

“Poor public and policymaker understanding of science, technology, and innovation” represents a threat to the goal of advancing science in service of society, said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, in a keynote address at the 41st annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

“There is simply an inadequate understanding of how important science, technology, and innovation are to our economy, to our quality of life, to our national security,” said Holdren, who also serves as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. “Until we lift up that level of public understanding, we won’t have public support for the kinds of increases in investment by the federal government that will be warranted” to address societal challenges.

Effectively communicating the relationship between scientific progress, human well-being, and economic growth could be particularly important now, amid uncertainties about the federal research and development (R&D) budget. Science-funding questions related to President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget were outlined at the Forum by Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. As Hourihan had previously reported, Obama’s proposed $4.1 trillion budget for 2017 includes a significant increase for R&D spending—calling for $152.9 billion in science investments, or $6.2 billion more than in fiscal year 2016. However, Hourihan explained, most of that additional R&D funding would be categorized as “mandatory spending,” meaning that it would not happen without new legislation, separate from the regular appropriations process.

Under the President’s proposal, Hourihan said, key science agencies would see large increases to their 2017 R&D budgets, but only if mandatory spending laws are approved. The National Institutes of Health, for example, would receive an increase of $825 million for 2017, given mandatory spending, yet a $1 billion decrease if it is limited to “discretionary” expenditures. Similarly, the President’s mandatory spending proposal for 2017 would increase the National Science Foundation’s R&D budget by 6.7%, but only by 1.3% without mandated investments.

Research and development areas with strong bipartisan support—such as efforts to combat cancer, brain disorders, and antibiotic resistance, as well as cybersecurity and computing initiatives—will likely continue to receive support under any new White House Administration, Holdren noted. Research related to climate change and clean energy could be more vulnerable to budget cuts, depending upon the outcome of the presidential election. “There is a significant difference in what the President would like to be investing in clean energy technology and what Congress seems at the current moment to be inclined to invest,” he said, adding that he believes “there is a good chance of that picture changing.”

Holdren emphasized, however, that improving national preparedness for extreme-weather events, flooding, and warmer temperatures would be a “win-win” for everyone as well as the economy, and therefore should receive bipartisan support.  He noted that the President’s proposed 2017 budget calls for a 20% increase for clean energy R&D, as a first step toward doubling those investments over five years, in keeping with an international climate-change agreement reached in Paris last December.

Also speaking at the Forum, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz outlined a new, more vital vision for the agency’s 17 national laboratories, which play a major role in addressing U.S. priorities, from responding to disasters, to improving water-purification technologies. He also discussed Mission Innovation, a multinational effort to pursue the clean-energy goals of the Paris agreement through private-sector and international research collaborations. In response to a question about the likelihood of Congressional support for proposed budget increases for DOE science initiatives, Moniz offered remarks that were both pragmatic and optimistic: While noting that current spending caps might make a 20% increase in clean-energy R&D unlikely, he said that there have been encouraging signs of greater bipartisan support for such research, and an appreciation for the DOE’s strategy to work with private investors as well as international collaborators. “I do expect that we will come out [of budget negotiations] with a Mission Innovation increase,” he said.

On the same day that Moniz addressed the Forum, journalist Adrian Cho reported for Science that appropriations subcommittees for both the Senate and the House of Representatives had on 13 April “released spending plans that would give the [DOE] Office of Science just a 0.9% increase.” Cho reported further that “both chambers also rejected the call for the $100 million mandatory spending on university research.”  

Hourihan noted that U.S. R&D spending represents about 2.8% of the overall economy, whereas other countries are rapidly ramping up their science investments. South Korea is spending 4.3% of their gross domestic product on R&D, while Israel is investing in science at a similar level, and Taiwan’s R&D investments are also increasing. China recently achieved a 2% science-spending level, as a percentage of its economy, but the country has a goal to invest 2.5% of its GDP on R&D by 2020, he noted.

Research is the “seed corn of innovation,” Holdren said, and the United States ought to be spending more on it. In addition, he touted the benefits of international research cooperation as a key pathway to innovation—a theme echoed by Moniz.

In his presentation, Holdren urged broader efforts to build the science and technology pipeline, too, through events such as the White House science fairs, to uplift student-innovators whose projects in recent years have moved far beyond baking-soda volcanoes. “I see the science fairs as part of a multi-faceted strategy to lift up science, technology, and innovation as important, creative, exciting and attractive activities,” he said. “We’ve been trying to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics cool, rather than just nerdy.”

Under the next White House Administration, Holdren said, science-based challenges that will require sustained, robust investment include efforts to ensure safe and sustainable food, water, and energy for everyone, reduce greenhouse gases, minimize harm from climate change already underway, combat diseases such as Zika, defeat cancer, improve quality-of-life for those who are aging, prevent devastating asteroid impacts, and send humans into space “not just to visit, but to stay.” Persistent obstacles toward those goals include inadequate funding for R&D, underrepresentation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and widespread misunderstanding of science, he added.


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs