More bad news for science in the U.S.

If you think my July 24 post about the outlook for science in the U.S. brought bad news, just wait, it gets worse.

We really need to worry about the marginalization of science
in the present Administration

Probably not a surprising piece of news. Here are more reasons why we should be concerned, just in case you need convincing:

It can be – and is – argued that scientists have not been successful enough in telling Congressional offices powerful stories of how our federal investment in basic research pays off for American taxpayers. Senator Chris Coons (DE) recently wrote some advice for our community on this score. Part of my job, as Director of the AMS’s Washington Office, is to collect our stories and tell them. I can assure you that there are many great people, including from our sister disciplinary societies, in D.C. telling these stories with me, on behalf of all scientific areas. We work hard, but we can always do more, and do better. One area in which I feel we have not been very good is in helping legislators understand what “indirect” or “overhead” costs go to and why they are critical to supporting research. Because these critical funds are not well-understood and are perhaps under the radar (and perhaps because discussing them does not a sexy conversation make), they are under threat.

There are other alarming signals coming from the government, appearing as serious threats to science. One such signal is in the lack of science appointments made thus far. The White House has recently allowed the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) science division to empty completely of all staff, and the science adviser at the State Department recently resigned. President Trump has not filled the position of OSTP Director, or official science advisor, positions often held by one person (John Holdren held both under President Obama). President Obama’s OSTP had over 130 employees (to be fair, this was a large OSTP, compared with previous administrations), with nine in the science division who led on issues such as STEM education. Every post-World-War-II president except President Nixon has had scientists in the White House. According to a recent Nature article, only 12 people are working on science in the White House, and the Administration is being represented at senior staff meetings by Michael Kratsios who is Deputy Assistant to the President (OSTP), and a former chief of staff to venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Without a stronger working group, OSTP and science are being marginalized in the current Administration. Incidentally, Kratsios is also serving at least in some way as the public face for science in the White House; we were very pleased that he attended the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) awards ceremony held at the State Department in June. The AMS supports the USAMO and Executive Director Catherine Roberts, Committee on Science Policy Chair Scott Wolpert, AMS Congressional Fellow Catherine Paolucci, and I represented the AMS at the event. The chart below gives an overview of key science positions filled by recent administrations. The chart does not show retentions and – important to the math community – President Trump has retained President Obama’s NSF Director France Córdova.

Finally, don’t even get me started on threats to international cooperation in science (e.g., introduced legislation that would dramatically alter universities’ ability to hire who they want to hire), and support for STEM education. I plan to soon write about these topics.

In addition to this blog, I post regular items on the AMS Washington Office Government News page (and recently wrote there a little bit about the legislation mentioned in the preceding paragraph).


About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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