Science under fire in the U.S.A.

Sadly, this topic keeps begging me to write about it; you can consider this a continuation of sorts of my August 28, 2017 and December 1, 2017 posts.

Brace yourself, this post is longer than usual and (I hope not too) rambling.

A recent Nature article (Vol 553, January 2018, page 132) about a Research!America survey (nationwide, 1005 adults surveyed), reveals that “[a]lthough 82% of respondents thought that scientists were trustworthy, 81% could not name a living scientist and 67% could not name a research institution. About half of respondents said they believed that great science will continue under US President Donald Trump’s administration.”

Hmmm. Not sure I agree. On what do I base my lack of confidence, you ask?

First, a Congressional update. Scientists with eyes on Congress are currently focused on funding. The federal fiscal calendar runs October 1 through September 30. We are 1/3 of the way through FY2018 and Congress has not passed any of the 12 appropriations bills it is supposed to pass each year. If these bills are not passed in Congress, either the government shuts down or Congress passes a “continuing resolution” (a “CR” is the name for a piece of legislation that keeps money flowing when Congress fails to do its job and pass regular spending bills). We’re currently living CR to CR. The figure below gives an overview of the four CRs that have occurred this cycle; the current one expires on tomorrow and while the Senate just today passed a bipartisan two-year funding bill, it is not clear that this will be enacted in time to avoid a shutdown.

The last time that Congress passed every one of the regular bills on time avoiding either a CR or a government shutdown was 1997. And you think four CRs sounds bad? In 2001, there were a remarkable TWENTY-ONE CRs! But, to be fair, Congress has only managed to proceed in the way it is supposed to four times in the past forty years. The very short weekend shutdown in January didn’t have much effect on scientific work, but a longer one could, as detailed in this National Geographic article. During a shutdown, the National Science Foundation, for example, does not issue grant payments. Shutdowns also affect the internal workings of the NSF; during the three day shutdown in January, ten merit review panels had to be rescheduled (according to NSF Director France Córdova testifying at a recent Senate hearing).

Most federal funding for mathematics research comes from the NSF and this money is allocated as part of just one of the regular spending bills referred to in the preceding paragraph. While the three still need reconciled, let me remind you that the President proposes an 11% cut to the NSF, while the Senate supports a 2% cut and the House flat funding. President Trump’s proposed FY2019 budget is expected to come out on February 12 and we have reason to believe that, once again, his proposed cuts to non-defense agencies (including the NSF) will be significant.

Second, what about scientific knowledge and advice in the Executive Branch? Another Research!America survey shows that the Majority Of Americans think that candidates for Congress should have a basic understanding of scientific issues and, further, that these candidates should have a science advisor. I conjecture, if I may, that most Americans would further agree that the President him or herself should also get good science advice, from good science advisors. So, what about that?

The President typically gets science advice from the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP). But, this office is (still) understaffed. President Trump has not yet appointed an OSTP director, who would coordinate scientific programs across government and presumably also serve as the president’s science advisor. It remains unclear whether Trump intends to fill this position, even with groups of Senators urging him to make these appointments. You can track the OSTP Director and other executive branch appointments with the Washington Post.

A recent report’s title — Abandoning Science Advice: One Year in, the Trump Administration Is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees — issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists is most informative on this topic. It contains many chilling tidbits. For example, advisory committees for the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and Department of Interior shrunk in size and met less often in 2017 than at any time in the past 20 years. Such advisory committees have historically included both public- and private-sector scientists, but the balance of representation has also changed during the Trump administration; after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned its grant recipients from advisory roles, its proportion of industry advisors rose from 6% to 23%.

Finally, let’s review our federal investment in science and compare it to that of other countries. I’ve previously written about how the U.S. compares to other countries in terms of our investment in science. The just-released NSF biennial Science & Engineering Indicators report for 2018 shows that overall research spending in China has increased by about 18% per year since 2000 while in the U.S., the annual increase during the same period has been only 4%.

Our position as a world leader was a focus of the Senate hearing referred to earlier in this piece. The U.S. has been a magnet for students from all over the world seeking a top education. But, more and more we are at the least alienating and at the worst actively not permitting foreign students to study here. In its latest annual survey, the Council of Graduate Schools asserts that policies, such as the travel ban and “extreme vetting,” “might have created significant damage to the reputation of the United States as the preferred destination for those who pursue advanced studies.” According to the survey, applications from prospective international students were down by 3% in fall 2017. The table below — showing total international graduate enrollment by field of study for Fall 2017 — indicates that mathematics and engineering are at risk of being hit especially hard by decreasing applications from abroad. Our Master’s degree programs in mathematics might be especially hard hit.

If we want to remain a world leader, educating the next generation of scientist must remain a top priority.

As Eric Lander argues in the Boston Globe, the U.S. is at a turning point and may well “yield its position as the world’s leader in science and technology.” He points out that President Trump has tweeted about 4,700 times since taking office and neither “science” nor “technology” have made even one appearance. While this might just seem silly, to stoop so low to even refer to our president’s tweets, is this telling? So, if tweets are silly, how about the State of the Union address? From the text submitted for the record, we find the word “science” once and “technology” zero times. And, for the record, “education” has two mentions. His mention of science was toward the end of the speech, when he told us that “Americans fill the world with art and music. They push the bounds of science and discovery.” His first mention of education was when he was telling us of one of his special guest’s plans to save for his children’s’ education and the second was in the context of immigration, that those “who meet education and work requirements, and show good moral character, will be able to become full citizens of the United States.” Neither of these is really about education.

Who cares if we lead? Lander’s piece makes a good argument that being a global leader is important.

Closing remarks. All this neglect and structural loss is leading to a sense of fatigue within certain sectors of the research community, at science agencies, and in Congress.

I always try to think of the bright side…..wait for it (I’m thinking) ……perhaps we will see more scientists galvanized to take a shot at a Congressional seat themselves; could this help that Majority Of Americans (mentioned earlier in this piece) sleep better?


About Karen Saxe

Since January 1, 2017, Karen Saxe is Director of the Washington Office of the AMS which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who impact science funding. Before joining the AMS, Karen was DeWitt Wallace Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over many years she has contributed 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-AAAS Science & Technology Policy 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, skiing, and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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