Physicists Ponder Outlook for Science in a Time of Budget Battles and ‘Alternative Facts’

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Publication date: 
3 February 2017

At a meeting of the American Physical Society, two physicist-congressmen and a former top federal science official discussed challenges the science community may face in the coming years and sketched out ways to respond.

Just over a week after the presidential inauguration, physicists gathered in Washington, D.C. for an annual meeting of the American Physical Society. With the presidential transition on everyone’s minds, a Jan. 28 plenary session entitled “Science Policy in the 21st Century” drew a large crowd. A video of the session is available here.

Speaking at the event were three physicists who currently or until recently served in high-level policy positions: former Department of Energy Office of Science Director Cherry Murray, former Democratic congressman and current American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Rush Holt, and Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL). President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, was listed as a speaker on the program but did not appear at the event.

Each speaker offered approaches for engaging with citizens and the government in the current political landscape. Murray recommended ways to advocate for science in the increasingly constrained budget environment, while Holt called for a concerted effort to restore America’s “reverence for evidence,” and Foster provided a how-to guide for scientists interested in running for elected office.


Panelists from left: APS President Laura Greene, former DOE Office of Science Director Cherry Murray, AAAS CEO Rush Holt, and Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL)

(Image credit – APS Photo/Ken Cole)

Murray highlights budget trends that are ‘not sustainable’

“When I was asked to give this talk, it was in a different era,” Murray began, adding “Since I don’t know actually what is happening as well as any of you do—you can read the same notices in The Hill and other publications as I can—I just thought I’d give you a tutorial [on the federal budget.]”

With a slide deck entitled “Whither Federal Funding for Science in the Era of Lowering Taxes, Increasing Defense Spending, Balancing Budget Deficits, Reducing National Debt and ‘post Truth’?,” Murray asserted that various looming demographic and budgetary forces do not bode well for federal funding of science.

She explained that growing expenditures on programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and the resultant ballooning federal debt, puts pressure on the portion of the budget from which science programs are funded. “I predict that the federal funding for research will be going down,” she concluded, and suggested that the physics community focus on explaining how investments in fundamental science support the economy.


A slide from Murray’s presentation showing projected increases in the national debt absent changes to current policies.

(Image credit – Congressional Budget Office)

Tracing the federal government’s support of R&D back in time, she reminded the audience that governments do not fund research because “science is beautiful,” but rather because it contributes to the economy and national security, among other societal benefits. She also advised against advocating for physics at the expense of other disciplines:

It’s better to come together as all of science and just say ‘science is important for the economy’ rather than pointing fingers at other disciplines and saying ‘we should be funding this and not that’ because then you look like a special interest group.

Beyond budgetary trends, she also enumerated seven current science policy debates that will play out over the coming decades: (1) what the federal role, if any, should be in funding applied research, (2) the extent to which agencies’ research portfolios should be allowed to overlap, (3) the appropriate balance between support of individual investigators vs. team science requiring large facilities, (4) the tradeoffs associated with broadening access to research results through open access policies (5) whether to focus on cultivating ‘deep’ disciplines or fostering trans-disciplinary research, (6) the ethics of pursuing research that could both benefit and harm society, and (7) whether the government should support research that is “uncomfortable to certain principles and beliefs.”

Holt says America traditionally has had a 'reverence for evidence'

In his talk, Holt attributed aspects of the current political climate to an “unnerving trend that has gone on for some decades now that I call an erosion for the appreciation for science.”

He stated that although the intersection of science and politics has always been messy and that “politicians from time immemorial have discarded inconvenient evidence,” the advent of “fake news” and “alternative facts” represents a particularly concerning development:

If you can have this fact or this alternative fact, and they’re equivalent—that calls into question the very idea that science is a special way for separating truth from falsehood. … 

Now where fake news is indistinguishable in many people’s minds from fact, we have to act. And it will not be done by asserting what is the fact, but rather empowering people to handle evidence for themselves [and] to rebuild the traditional American reverence for evidence.

He attributed some of the blame to scientists, remarking that they often present conclusions in a “condescending and hierarchical way” that leads people to interpret them as just one person’s assertion.“The question is can we restore their sense of confidence, can we empower them to think about evidence for themselves? I would argue that for 200 years our government and our culture has been very empirical. … Because this is an American characteristic historically, there ought to be a way to recover it.”

Foster laments lack of U.S. lawmakers with technical backgrounds

Adapting a slide deck from a talk he gives to encourage scientists and scientifically-inclined people to run for elected office, Foster’s presentation traced his career from business to physics research to Capitol Hill. He began by highlighting the low number of U.S. legislators that have science or engineering backgrounds, noting that this is not the case in other countries such as China.


A plot from Foster’s presentation generated with a computer program he wrote that categorized elected officials based on keywords in their biographical descriptions

 (Image credit – Rep. Bill Foster)

He also pointed out that the U.S. will soon have to confront a growing number of technical issues that will have far-reaching policy implications—ranging from genetic engineering of humans to fundamental changes in warfare brought about by technologies such as artificial intelligence and drone swarms. He identified these as issues that scientists “can and really must weigh in on,” and later added, “These are more than just scientific questions, but they are questions where there are scientific facts that have to be dealt with.”

‘Do we have a plan?’

At the end of the session, an audience member anxiously asked whether the scientific community has both a plan and the necessary tools to push back against potential budget cuts and other threats to the scientific community.

Holt responded that leaders of scientific societies are holding frequent meetings to discuss strategy and stressed that there will not be just one approach. “This is not going to be a single plan that all scientists and friends of science will march in unison on.” He also said that one focus of the effort will be to better communicate to the government the returns on investment in science.

Foster observed that one of the difficulties with articulating these returns on investment is that they often occur decades in the future, whereas the political horizon often does not extend beyond the next election. He referred to this challenge as a “fundamental design problem with democracy” that leads the nation to underinvest in things such as fundamental science:

You can be a hero this election by balancing the budget in ways that cause permanent harm to our nation’s economy.

Concluding the session on a more optimistic note, Murray reiterated that science has bipartisan support in Congress, particularly in the Senate. “Don’t forget, Congress is incredibly important.”

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