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Positive spin

Science lobbyists must boost the appeal of research to policy-makers.

Pity the science lobbyist. As we report on page 299 of this issue, the combination of the economic downturn, concerns over the budget deficit and anti-science rhetoric from the Tea Party have created a difficult environment for those paid to persuade US lawmakers to find funds for research. And money available to lobbyists to make the case is in short supply too, as sponsor organizations watch their own budgets in the struggling economy.

The good news, at least, is that lobbyists are aware of the problems and have a pitch that takes some account of them. Their arguments now routinely stress the importance of research to US economic growth, health, welfare and competitiveness — and point out that research institutions are major employers in districts that include those represented by Tea Party members. A change in terminology, from 'science funding' to 'science investment', is particularly smart.

Yet there are many types of investment — roads, primary education and crime reduction, to name but a few — that must compete for an ever-decreasing pot of funds, and science advocates could do more to respond to the shifting mood in Washington.

First, lobbyists should argue that scientists spend US taxpayers' money efficiently. Campaigners can point to changes that the scientific community is making to ensure that is the case. As Nature reported in August (see Nature 476, 385; 2011), a study by the National Academy of Sciences on research universities, due out by the end of 2011, is expected to recommend ways in which institutions could share resources and be more thrifty. Leaders of the medical community, who have seen funding through the National Institutes of Health double between 1998 and 2003 but slow since, are also making informal preparations to downsize their enterprise or survive on a flat budget. That the US scientific community is taking its cue from lawmakers to streamline operations reflects well, and could help to counter the image painted by critics of scientists as elitist ivory-tower types in ill-deserved, comfortable jobs.

“Too many faculty researchers still regard teaching as an inconvenience.”

Second, lobbyists should stress how money spent on science contributes to education. This requires action from the scientists too, to make sure they take their teaching responsibilities seriously. There is increasing political scrutiny of this role, which too many faculty researchers still regard as an inconvenience.

In Texas, governor and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry has introduced a more business-orientated approach to education that could, this month, see nearly half the undergraduate physics programmes in the state penalized with probation or closure if not enough students are graduating.

In response, physics faculties have pointed out, correctly, that such a severe policy would bar entry to science to minorities and students in poor areas, from which enrolment in science subjects is regrettably low. Up to one-third of graduates with undergraduate physics degrees in the United States come from programmes that would not meet the Texas requirements — to graduate 25 students in 5 years (see Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/news.2011.559; 2011). This diversity should be protected, not whittled away.

But lobbyists should take note: Texas physicists have responded too, with pledges to refocus their teaching responsibilities to educate and graduate more students. And many research universities are working to reward good teaching by staff scientists with promotions.

Similarly, scientists across the United States are taking a more personal stake in the education of the nation's children, a particularly important step given that anti-science rhetoric flourishes in an atmosphere of scientific illiteracy.

Programmes such as PhysTEC, a national network of institutions working to get physics graduates into school classrooms, and the UTeach Institute in Austin, Texas, which does the same for all scientific and mathematical fields, are working to address the paradox that, although bachelor's graduation rates in physics are at an all-time high across the United States, there is a shortage of well-qualified physics teachers in secondary schools. Lobbyists could and should highlight such programmes as examples of publicly funded scientists giving back to the public.

It is easy to be pessimistic and to assume that science investment will suffer with the economic and political fortunes of the United States, no matter what scientists do. But scientists, lobbyists and the wider research community must guard against such fatalism. The positive vibe generated by recent lobbying events in Washington DC and the fact that, historically, both US political parties have worked to protect science from cuts, is cause for optimism. The message simply needs a little fine-tuning.

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Positive spin. Nature 478, 285–286 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/478285b

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