Science Organizations Highlight Societal Benefits of the Geosciences

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Publication date: 
11 September 2015

In response to several bills that have been introduced this year to reduce funding for or otherwise restrict the growth of the Earth and related sciences, a group of science organizations are uniting behind a community response that highlights the broad societal benefits of the geosciences. Over 100 organizations signed a letter addressed to two key senators highlighting the importance of the geosciences, and a number of societies are hosting congressional briefings this month to highlight the value of the geosciences to society.

AIP and the American Meteorological Society, an AIP Member Society, joined 103 scientific societies and coalitions, universities and university departments, and private companies, as signatories to a letter sent August 18 to the two senators who are developing the America COMPETES legislation in the Senate, Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI).  That legislation would reauthorize the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy Office of Science, as well as a number of government-wide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education programs.  The letter provides examples of how geosciences contribute to the nation’s economy, safety, and security, and calls for a full and balanced portfolio for the NSF.  The letter describes the value of the geosciences workforce to the nation’s economy, especially the oil, gas, and mining industries; the contribution of improved hurricane prediction to saving lives; the importance of healthy oceans, coasts, and lakes as drivers of the economy; and the role of fundamental geosciences research in laying the groundwork for the development of hydraulic fracturing technology, which has transformed the domestic oil and gas industries. The letter explains:

As part of the Committee’s effort to develop legislation to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act and in response to the Committee’s invitation of July 8, 2015, for information that may assist in that effort, the undersigned institutions submit the attached information demonstrating how federal investment in research, in this case through the geosciences, yields important research results that contribute to innovative applications for the benefit of the economy and society. It is important to appreciate that the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) investments in all fields of science and engineering have addressed important national and global challenges, spurred new economic sectors, and led to the development and implementation of advanced technologies that save lives, protect property, and support our economy. We hope the examples contained herein will result in a renewed appreciation for the importance of research in the geosciences and overwhelming support for full and balanced funding for NSF.”

A trio of geosciences societies – the American Geophysical Society, the Geological Society of America, and the American Geosciences Institute – are hosting a briefing on September 17 on Capitol Hill titled “Using Geosciences Research to Accelerate the Innovation Economy,” which will elucidate how federal funding for geosciences research “supports industry, drives the economy, and impacts everyday life.”  Representative Mike Honda, the Ranking Member of the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled to speak at that briefing. In addition, the American Meteorological Society is holding a September 15th briefing on how improved seasonal forecasting could help fisheries managers more accurately predict the size of fish stocks, farmers plan for future prices of agricultural commodities, and energy companies forecast demand for electricity and gas.

Leaders in the science community have been concerned by a number of measures introduced in the last two years – in both authorization and appropriations legislation – pertaining to the geosciences. Of note, the House-passed version of the America COMPETES legislation would significantly reduce authorized funding for the Geosciences and Social, Behavioral, and Economic research directorates at the NSF.  In that bill, the Geosciences Directorate would be authorized at a $1,200 million level in FY 2016, which would amount to an 8.0 percent cut in funding below the FY 2015 funded level.

In addition, the FY 2016 House-passed Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill included the following guiding language: “The Committee directs NSF to ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70 percent of the funding within Research and Related Activities.” A quantitative analysis suggests that this language, which excludes the Geosciences and Social, Behavioral and Economic research directorates, could lead to a major cut in funding – possibly as much as 16 percent -- to Geosciences at NSF in FY 2016.  Similar report language included in the final FY 2015 appropriations bill provided no effective increase to the Geosciences Directorate in FY 2015.

For at least the last decade, Congress has allowed NSF broad discretion to set its own priorities and funding levels among its six research directorates within the Research and Related Activities account.  Last year’s appropriations language and the measures proposed for this year are contrary to that precedent.