APS News

Inside the Beltway

Science Futures: Buy or Sell?

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Unless you’re a political junkie or have nothing better to do with your time than watch Fox News or MSNBC, you probably haven’t heard the name David Jolly before. There’s no reason you should have. But you should be concerned about the impact his March 11 special election victory could have on science.

Jolly, a Republican lobbyist with no campaign experience, poor name recognition, and little early campaign cash, upended Alex Sink, a well-funded, well-known Democrat who had narrowly lost Florida’s last gubernatorial election. Jolly, helped by a flood of outside money, pulled off his narrow victory by running hard against big government programs in general and Obamacare in particular.

Although Republican Bill Young had represented Florida’s 13th district for 42 years until his death in 2013, the area anchored by Tampa had voted for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. That history has prompted analysts to label the special election a bellwether for the upcoming 2014 congressional elections. If they’re right, Jolly’s successful campaign could have national ramifications for both political parties. But that’s not all.

In a previous APS News column (October 2013), I wrote about the squeeze healthcare spending is creating for science budgets at both the national and state levels. But Jolly’s successful use of an anti-big government campaign theme suggests a further, existential threat to federal science programs.

Although the turnout demographics in a special election may not mimic the demographics in a general election, Jolly’s message that Washington is not to be trusted seems to have resonated well in a true swing district, especially among independent voters.

Based on the Florida 13th result, Republicans undoubtedly will continue to use the limited-government message in the 2014 congressional campaigns. Democrats will be on the defensive, and if the Jolly-Sink contest is a reliable predictor, their attempt to defend government may well be a losing proposition.

If shrinking government really does become a winning populist theme in November, the Tea Party will have a much larger choir singing its anti-Washington refrain. Should that happen, science budgets would be faced with a very challenging landscape, beginning as early as next year.

Last December’s Ryan-Murray budget deal restored most sequestration cuts in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, but unless Congress strikes a new bargain after the November elections, those across-the-board reductions will kick in once again in fiscal year 2016.

Despite its general bipartisan appeal among lawmakers, science could then become the exemplar of collateral damage in a fight between Democrats focused on preserving the social safety net and Republicans fixated on reducing the scope and budget of the federal government. Making the case for science will be difficult but not impossible.

There are a number of arguments that could resonate with both sides of the aisle. Here are just a few.

Fact One: The National Science Board’s recently released “Science and Engineering Indicators 2014” provides the following attention grabber. Between 2001 and 2012, our nation’s worldwide share of research and development fell from 37 percent to 30 percent. Message One: In an era of increasing global high-tech competition, we cannot afford to cede any further ground.

Fact Two: As the economy continues to recover, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that deficits will continue to shrink as long as corporate profits grow and corporate income tax revenues increase. Message Two: Science and technology are the acknowledged primary drivers of the 21st century American economy, and federal support of long-term research has proven to be a major catalyst of innovation and entrepreneurial ventures.

Fact Three: The workforce of the 21st century will have to be far more science and tech-savvy, and today we have far too few well-prepared science teachers to educate our students. Message Three: Investing in science education at the federal and state level is essential for developing a 21st century science teacher corps.

Fact Four: In the physical sciences and engineering, foreign students fill more than half the slots in advanced degree programs, and more frequently than in the past, foreign PhD recipients are returning to their home countries. Message Four: We must make graduate education more attractive to American students by providing the funds required for world-class university research programs and science instrumentation.

Having the messages is essential, but having messengers who can communicate them is just as important. Unfortunately, all too often, scientists who are at the top of their game in the laboratory are woefully lacking in basic communication skills. But there is hope.

As the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at SUNY-Stony Brook has shown, scientists can learn those skills with proper training. They may not become stars of stage and screen in the Alda tradition, but they can up their game dramatically.

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