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Roundtable: Retiring Lawmakers on Cutting the Science Pie, 'Selling the Sizzle'

9 November 2010 2:15 pm

Scientists need to change the tenor of the debate to avoid having research swept up in a larger budget cutting exercise by the next Congress.

That's one of many pieces of advice to the U.S. research community from four veteran legislators who have been strong supporters of academic research, training, and science education over the years. The quartet took part in a 4 November bipartisan roundtable discussion hosted by Science on the outlook for science after the resurgence by Republicans in the mid-term elections.

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"One of the most important things for scientists to do is to change the vocabulary," says Representative Sherry Boehlert (R–NY), a former chairperson of the House of Representatives science committee who retired from Congress in 2007 after 24 years in office. "No longer should we be talking about investing in science or increasing R&D funding or STEM education because it's important for science. We should make this a national security issue. When a lot of the conversation is about the next Congress cutting or freezing all non-national security spending, we ought to take [science] funding and put it under the national security umbrella. Because it is a question of national security—lessening dependence on foreign oil, competitiveness, providing opportunities for our young people, creating jobs."

Representative Brian Baird (D–WA), who is leaving Congress voluntarily after 12 years, warned that university presidents bent on expansion could be pursuing a flawed strategy. "There have been some articles suggesting that many, many universities are building on the expectation … that the operational costs are going to come from the federal government," says Baird, who chairs the science committee's energy and environment panel. "But they are competing for a pie that's not big enough to be eaten by all. There are going to be some hard landings here … so people need to be very, very careful about that."

Representative Alan Mollohan (D–WV), who chairs the appropriations panel that sets the budgets of NASA, the National Science Foundation, and science activities at the departments of Energy and Commerce, noted that "you have friends here [in Congress], and even the Obama Administration is your friend, although it's not reflected in every one of its budget requests. But you need to help … by popularizing the importance of these programs to society generally." Mollohan was defeated earlier this year in a Democratic primary after 28 years in Congress.

Representative Bob Inglis (R–SC), a former chair of the science committee's research panel who was defeated in a Republican primary and is leaving after six terms, said that scientists need to show that their work will eventually play a role in completing what he calls "the triple play of this American century: Improving national security, creating jobs, and cleaning up the air." His formula? "By selling the sizzle, [scientists] can help rescue us from a retreat from science and actually help to lead an advance."