By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.
Federal Budget – Science Funding
Next week, the annual hemming and hawing over the allocation of the precious federal dollars begins with the Obama administration sending its 2016 budget requests to Congress. Researchers are eager to see how this year’s fiscal drama unfolds, particularly with both houses being controlled by a Republican majority for the first time since President Obama was elected in 2008. In anticipation of these events, Jeffrey Mervis of ScienceInsider is writing a series of articles to offer some perspective on how this process works. In the three part series, Mr. Mervis talks with Representative John Culberson (R—TX), the new chair of the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS), and Related Agencies spending panel for the House of Representatives; Tom Cole (R—OK), a Ph.D. historian who now oversees the budget of the NIH; and the final essay will actually track the money (not available as of this writing).
A lawyer and a science enthusiast, Culberson was elected to Congress from a conservative district of Houston in 2000. Culberson comes from a family that was “fiscally conservative, devoted to the Constitution, and believed the American republic is a special inheritance.” With Thomas Jefferson as his role model, Culberson believes in a small federal government. However, because the Constitution states that “promoting the progress of science” is in the pervue of the federal government, he is comfortable supporting multibillion-dollar science investments in NASA’s space exploration efforts and the NSF’s efforts to improve science and math education. Culberson does follow the party line, though, in that the behavioral and social sciences and climate change funding are not priorities for the federal budget. (Mervis – ScienceInsider)
Since joining the House in 2003, Representative Tom Cole has served on both the Appropriations and Budget committees and sits on the rules committee and is a deputy whip for the Republican Steering Committee. Now, Dr. Cole is set take control of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-H) subcommittee appropriations panel, which includes funding the NIH. While growing up, Dr. Cole’s mother impressed on him that everywhere she lived that had a competitive two-party system was governed better than locations where power was concentrated in one party. Thus, he became a Republican largely because Oklahoma was a Democratic haven when he entered politics. Thus, despite his conservative credentials, Dr. Cole has a reputation for listening to all sides of an argument and working cooperatively with both sides of the aisle to achieve goals. “Legislators are students too,” says Cole, and thus he endeavors to learn more about the NIH and how it functions before making any bold declarations. Yet, he does state that some of his priorities include maintaining a strong military, protecting the weather forecast office in Norman, OK, and advocating for the Indian Health Service. (Mervis – ScienceInsider)
There are always seem to be plenty of sensationalist headlines to go around about the “anti-science Republicans.” However, there are certainly high-ranking Republicans who are staunch advocates for funding different branches of science. The biggest hurdle in the months of arguing to come is that the federal budget, in general, remains tight. Thus, it is likely that even with the best discussions and compromises, there will still be plenty of disappointments once the final 2016 budget is passed.
Science Communication – Scientists vs the General Public
The results of a new poll administered by the Pew Research Center are in, and they confirm there is a large gap in opinions between the general public and scientists on many popular topics. The poll, conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), asked 2,002 US adults and 3,748 AAAS members the same set of questions about scientific achievements, education, and controversial issues. Some of the few things that the two groups agree on are that the International Space Station has been a good investment for the US and that we should not increase the use of fracking. Yet, as many people are aware, there are large differences in opinion on whether is it safe to eat genetically modified foods (51% gap in opinion), the extent that climate change is mostly due to human activity (37% gap), or whether humans have evolved over time (33% gap). Although scientists tend to point to their own poor track record of interacting with the general public and deficits in scientific education, this is likely an over-simplification of a complex issue. In many cases, the people being polled are educated, scientifically literate individuals. Yet, according to one study published in American Sociological Review, one in five US adults are deeply religious, and those individuals often disregard scientific findings that clash with their beliefs. Alan Leshner, the leader of AAAS, believes that scientists need to make a greater effort in engaging small, grass roots, type of venues like retirement communities or library groups to help the general public understand that “scientists are people too.” (Graham – BioMed Central, Funk and Raine – Pew Research Center)
Environmental Policy – Offshore Drilling
Perhaps receiving less attention than the more widely touted Precision Medicine Initiative, on Tuesday the Obama Administration announced a proposal to open the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling. The administration seems to be offering this proposal as a compromise for limiting drilling efforts in the Arctic, where President Obama called for wilderness protection of 12.4 million acres of oil-rich lands in Alaska. Environmentalists are concerned about the potential of oil spills and other environmental disasters, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico. And even the fossil fuel industry has complaints about the proposal. It is unclear how much oil and gas are even accessible off of the Atlantic coast. Based off of the most recent surveys, which are 30 years old, the Atlantic holds only a fraction of the reserves available off of Alaska. Adding further to the fossil fuel industry’s displeasure is the fact that the proposal does not call for drilling in the Arctic until 2017 at the earliest. The Arctic is an area becoming quite popular in the international community due to the melting of the polar ice caps making the region more accessible and increasing available shipping lanes. Industry advocates say the delay jeopardizes the US’s energy security, since countries like Russia and Denmark are already aggressively exploring the region. (Koch – National Geographic)
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