Dear Research Advocate:
Anticipating the 2014 State of the Union address next Tuesday evening, I have been searching for the right descriptor — the union is “in a state of resignation”? “The state of the union is not as bad as it could be”? “The union is in a state that falls short of its potential”? “The Americans forming this union are in a state of disappointment regarding their elected leaders”? A headline from The Washington Post last week addresses the latter point: “Congratulations on your budget, Congress. America still hates you,” i.e. no uptick for those low ratings for congresspersons of either party! The president’s rating with the public is a bit better (though not high) as he takes the annual opportunity to discuss the nation’s progress relative to enduring objectives such as economic strength, robust national defense capability, a balanced budget and, implicitly, global leadership and influence. As we all know, the state of our nation’s science and technology enterprise intersects all of these objectives, but the odds are against that point being made. The pols don’t believe there are votes in talking about science, and this year is all about rounding up votes. Yet there are a number of reasons voters should question candidates about their position on research and innovation: because of the good jobs and revenue today; because our global competitiveness in export markets extends into the future; and because medical and human progress remains an enduring and defining contribution that our nation makes to its people and to the world.
It is disturbing that the omnibus (budget) bill that became law last week was applauded in some quarters, given that NIH was funded at approximately the same level as in 2012 (with its purchasing power almost 25% less than a decade ago) and that science in general saw modest increases at best. Apparently policy makers perceive science as a fair weather priority, one among many that earned token relief from sequestration for two years — and with little attention to the fact that payback for that relief is scheduled 10 years from now. Yes, we’re going to have sequestration around until 2023! I have been told repeatedly that science will be better funded when the economy is booming again. Despite the fact that history demonstrates this formulation is backwards (science drives the economy, it isn’t a drag on it), this argument has no legs at present.
A national priority closely related to science has also been subsumed by deficit reduction, again despite the historical evidence that it is a lynchpin for erasing our deficit and debt: STEM education and STEM jobs. A recent Battelle Technology Partnership Practice report affirms that our nation’s STEM capacity is slipping relative to global competitors. How much evidence do we need, and how many good ideas for addressing the problem need to be surfaced before this issue is truly taken seriously? Reclaiming STEM education leadership, like ensuring we maintain a robust public and private sector research ecosystem, are oft-stated aspirations when they should be imperatives, with leadership and resources committed to their realization.
So what do we do to convince candidates — incumbents and challengers alike — that it’s worth their time to talk about science? We must all work to assure that many voters ask would-be office holders their position — if many potential voters ask, candidates will speak to our issues. I will say more about this in upcoming letters — get ready to engage in candidate and voter education!
And meanwhile, listen in on Tuesday evening. If, as is likely, the president does not acknowledge the need to elevate the priority of U.S. science and technology in his State of the Union address, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, send out a tweet, and/or call in to talk radio to register your chagrin. (Of course, if he does speak out for science, use these same media channels to reinforce the message!)