Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Our Greatest Challenges Require Science, Not Silence

If we are to face the challenges posed by political misconduct and a changing planet, scientists need to be at the table, and in the streets, to advocate for their work.

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Scientists have long worked to protect our public health and advance our economy and national security. While doing this vital work, they have also largely avoided the noise and clamor of political debate. As an engineer, I can relate to this preference. However, as a longtime public servant, I have seen how important it is for scientists to speak out. The challenges we face as a nation and world are substantial, and history shows us that they will not be solved without your science and your voices.

In the United States, publicly funded science outside government agencies didn’t exist when AGU was founded, in 1919. In fact, its start wouldn’t come until early 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Scientific Research and Development to develop technologies that could help win the Second World War. The first director of that office, engineer Vannevar Bush, allowed the scientists under his direction to pursue the research they deemed most promising. This openness to creativity contributed to an Allied victory while producing major technological advances, including radar countermeasures and the chemical synthesis of penicillin.

A Model for Public-Serving Science

Roosevelt saw the potential for more and asked Bush to craft a model for permanent, federally funded scientific research. The resulting report, “Science—The Endless Frontier,” became a road map for the United States of America to advance independent, fundamental, and necessary scientific knowledge for the benefit of all.

In his report, Bush argued that federally funded science should advance three measures: public health, national security, and public welfare. He argued that science could best advance these measures with strong and steady funding and, just as important, freedom from political interference.

Bush’s legacy can be seen today in many of the ways we support scientific research, including the independent peer review process we use to allocate grant funding. That approach has contributed to our nation’s global dominance in the fields of science and technology.

Unfortunately, these prerequisites identified by Bush—funding and independence—are threatened. Federal research has been a target of political attacks for decades, and the precipitous decline in congressional funding highlights the success of these attacks. In 1965, federal research and development funding represented 1.8% of the U.S. gross domestic product; today it hovers around 0.5%. The Earth sciences represent a small and shrinking sliver of that already neglected total, despite their present and vital importance. As the climate crisis unfolds, the costs of underfunding Earth and space research agencies become increasingly grave.

Science has long weathered such attacks without letting go of Bush’s founding principle of scientific independence. Sadly, the disruptions of scientific independence under President Donald Trump’s administration have added measurably to these concerns. Under Trump’s presidency, political leaders have buried climate data and reports, prohibited use of the terms “science-based” and “evidence-based” in budget documents, and discredited National Weather Service forecasters for presenting factual emergency response information that contradicted outdated forecasts. The president’s budget requests have repeatedly proposed to cut both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s and the U.S. Geological Survey’s funding by more than 20%. Our national commitment to public science has fallen far since the days of Roosevelt.

A National Awakening

These attacks on scientific funding and independence are bad for our health, security, and economy, but they have brought one good outcome: a national awakening of scientists and advocates for strong, smart science policy.

I have been proud to help carry this effort forward in Congress. As chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, I have made science our guiding principle in everything from chemical policy to climate action.

As a member of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, I was proud to reintroduce the Scientific Integrity Act to help ensure that our nation’s most important science will be conducted, reviewed, communicated to the public, and incorporated into policy making in ways that are transparent and free from political, ideological, financial, or other undue influence.

Today that bill has over 200 cosponsors and counting. We held a hearing earlier this year at which we heard a consistent message from across the political spectrum: Scientific integrity is not partisan. I am optimistic that this message has finally begun to resonate through the halls of Congress, and I look forward to making real bipartisan progress.

I am also fighting to ensure that sound, evidence-based policy is readily available for policy makers and that science advisers are always free to speak the truth. The president’s Executive Order 13875 required one third of all federal advisory committees to be dissolved. These panels are made up of scientists and academics who advise federal agencies on how to ensure that their regulations are grounded in the best available research. I responded along with my colleagues Reps. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) by introducing the Preserve Science in Policymaking Act, which would prevent the president from unilaterally dissolving these vital scientific advisory committees.

We Need Science Advocates

Members of this administration have worked to undermine federal science policy, and the consequences will ripple out long after these leaders have left office. Americans are living—and dying—in the path of unprecedented flooding, raging wildfires, and battering storms driven by Earth’s changing climate. More than ever, we need to set aside past disagreements and rise together to meet this challenge. We agree that climate change is real. We agree that humans are driving it. Science has given us this much. But we also agree that we need to build solutions that meet the scale and urgency of the crisis we face. And that means we need more than good science; we also need scientific advocates to confront the large-scale challenges that Vannevar Bush knew federally funded science would have to solve.

Earlier this year, I spoke at the Climate Leadership Conference in Baltimore, Md., where I introduced my Framework for Climate Action in the U.S. Congress; this framework outlines how Congress can build legislation drawing on the best science and our common values to combat the global climate crisis. Our Energy and Commerce Subcommittee announced a science-driven target for U.S. climate action of 100% net-zero emissions by 2050, which we call “100 by 50.” Achieving this ambitious target will require an equally ambitious plan for widespread transition across all sectors of our economy.

In July the House Science Committee advanced two bills I introduced to move us closer to our “100 by 50” target: the Wind Energy Research and Development Act, which creates an Office of Wind Energy within the Department of Energy, and an amendment to the Fossil Energy Research and Development Act to improve the efficiency of gas turbines. Across Congress, numerous bills are being introduced to reduce emissions, whether through carbon pricing, stringent fuel economy standards, incentives for wind and solar energy, or a host of other measures. These efforts require, and I think reasonably demand, the attention and vocal engagement of the U.S. scientific community.

The challenges we face are vast, our opposition is entrenched and powerful, and it can be easy to doubt our ability to respond adequately. Remember that we have faced challenges at this scale before. We found a cure for polio. We sent humans to the Moon and brought them back safely.

Speak Up and We’ll Turn Up

We are quantitatively observing a turning point in public opinion in which science, and climate specifically, is driving voters to the polls. A recent Gallup poll found that for the first time, a majority of voters view climate change as either an “extremely important” or “very important” voting issue. The grassroots success of the March for Science revealed popular support for science as a democratic value and for the idea that facts and evidence matter and should form the basis of our governance. More science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-trained professionals decided to run for public office in 2018 than ever before, both on their own and with the help of new science advocacy groups such as 314 Action. Many of them won!

The scientific method calls on us to be value-free and objective. I can certainly understand that our nation’s scientists might hesitate before wading into the murky world of politics and public policy. Let me be clear: If you care about scientific research, funding, and the continued prosperity of humanity, political apathy is no longer an option. You must learn more about the local, regional, and national political movements, legislation, and policies that affect you. Help shape these factors. Federal science is the product of political choices.

Our U.S. scientific community is at a crossroads. The knowledge it creates is critical for our continued survival, even as its value and independence are being questioned or undermined at a scale unprecedented in modern history. Science is under attack, but it is also our best hope. We have the skill and the organization necessary to get the job done. More than anything, we need our knowledgeable and skilled scientists to be vocal and supportive of putting science first.

Add yourselves to the legion of us who are now marching, writing, legislating, and advocating so that federally funded science can direct our efforts to tackle the monumental challenges of this and future centuries.

—U.S. Representative Paul D. Tonko (D-N.Y.; [email protected])

Citation: Tonko, P. D. (2019), Our greatest challenges require science, not silence, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO136387. Published on 25 November 2019.
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