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Nature Structural & Molecular Biology volume 12, page 937 (2005) | Download Citation


This time of year, some of our US readers are relieved to have finished their grant proposals. Others are biting their nails, having received their priority scores but still awaiting council decisions on the payline for this cycle. Still others are anticipating (or perhaps dreading) beginning the next grant. Regardless of where you fall on the funding timeline, you are likely discussing the continued decline in funding levels and wondering what fiscal year 2006 (FY 2006) has in store for you. Budget allocations are unpredictable, but scientists can't afford to sit back and pretend they can't influence policy while waiting for government to make up its mind. According to Rush D. Holt (D-NJ), a physicist and one of the few scientifically trained members of the US Congress, it is essential that scientists counter the idea that federal funding is 'welfare for people in lab coats' and that 'the beneficiaries of science are scientists.' To do so, scientists must understand the financial and political issues that surround their particular fields and learn to communicate effectively with politicians. Below, we offer some facts about the current state of FY 2006 and the people that shape research and development (R&D) budget policy. We also suggest some ways to influence politicians and ensure that they allocate funds to scientific research.

The fiscal year started on October 1, but the 2006 budget is not yet finished and its prospects are uncertain. Most agencies, including the US NIH, are still waiting for their budget and are currently operating at the lowest of the FY 2005 approved funding level. The wait is likely to continue for a few more months because of an unusually large amount of other legislative business, including the US Supreme Court nominations, a bill to cut taxes and entitlements spending, and disaster relief for hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The latter has initiated a scramble to find domestic spending cuts to offset the cost of rebuilding cities and lives. According to the AAAS October Status Report on R&D in FY 2006 Appropriations, this will affect appropriations to the funding agencies, but by how much is uncertain. Not surprisingly, nondefense research budgets are predicted to remain unchanged or decrease in FY 2006.

Regardless of the outcome, this year's fiscal situation serves as a reminder that, as in our personal lives, many events dictate the allocation of funds to many different, equally worthy causes. In politics, the goal is to secure financial resources for one's favorite cause. So how do scientists ensure that they receive their share of the budget? In theory, scientists have a voice in the White House, the presidential science advisor, John Marburger, who works with the President and the Office of Management and Budget. In his opinion, 'science policy is largely a matter of science budget policy,' and it is Dr. Marburger's job to shape it. However, much to the surprise of many scientists, Dr. Marburger, a physicist, academic and university administrator, has not always sided with research scientists. He has continued to defend the science policy and flat-line scientific research budgets of the current administration. Dr. Marburger says that his focus is on “the health of science and the objectives that you try to achieve in a society through science” (D. Smith, New York Times Magazine 4 September 2005, 37–40). He does so through large-scale projects and issues that may or may not positively affect the funding of basic scientific research.

If scientists can't rely on Dr. Marburger to champion their cause, then they must influence budget policy through other means. They can depend on organizations and societies with vocal policy groups (such as the AAAS, FASEB or the ACS) to lobby the decision makers. Alternatively, scientists can take matters into their own hands and express their views directly to their representatives. However, scientists are not trained to be political activists and are not likely to have refined the skills of political persuasion during their careers. Former representative George E. Brown (D-CA) believed that “they [scientists], generally speaking, have too great a faith in the power of common sense and reason. That's not what drives most political figures, who are concerned about emotions and the way a certain event will affect their constituency” (C. Dreifus, New York Times 9 March 1999, F3).

So as a constituent who happens to be a scientist, what's the most effective means to communicate the worthiness of scientific research to politicians? Andrea Stith, FASEB science policy analyst, and Gary Kline, FASEB legislative analyst, encourage scientists to remember a simple acronym, TALK: Tell people what it is scientists do; become an Advocate for research; write Letters to editors and elected officials; and Know the issues and the audience (A. Stith and G. Kline, Association for Women in Science Magazine 34, 13–15, 2005). It is important for scientists to remember that their neighbors don't know what they do. It is equally important that researchers be advocates for science. There's no need for detailed exposition with hard facts. Instead, a simple targeted message of how and why the research is important will suffice. Scientists must keep in mind that their credentials, which indicate they have an informed opinion, matter to politicians, and even a “Thanks for supporting a particular issue” letter or e-mail can influence future decisions by representatives. Equally important is the need to understand the issues surrounding the science and its significance to the public. The scientific community risks losing future support for its research if scientists become estranged from the rest of society. Reading the news pieces in research journals, the local papers and society newsletters is an effective way to become aware of scientific issues and public opinion on such issues. Better yet, scientists should write letters to the editor in response to news pieces and voice their opinions. Gary Kline believes that this is an effective way to educate the general public and politicians reading these news publications.

Regardless of how each researcher might choose to influence science budget policy, it is essential that scientists stop believing that the course of events in Congress is beyond their control. Instead, they should publicly promote the value of their work. This promotion should take place in neighborhoods, sitting on a plane headed to the next scientific meeting, and anywhere we interact with nonscientists. Constant reminders will eventually convince the public and politicians that scientific research is worth the investment even in the most financially challenging years.

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