July 11, 2013

Accomplishments and Future Needs of Science in the United States

Posted by Sam Brockway

The first full day of the 2013 AGU Science Policy Conference, on 25 June, began with a plenary session that provided a frame for discussions throughout the day. The plenary session, Preparing for Our Future: The Value of Science, not only elucidated the myriad of economic and societal contributions of science in the United States, but also issued a call for scientists to communicate their contributions and defend their role. The session featured Dr. Cora Marrett, Acting Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Bart Gordon, the former Chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology from 2007 to 2010, who showcased the value of science to the U.S., discussed potential solutions for the challenges science presently faces, and outlined areas for future growth. Following the plenary session, discussion panels addressed the accomplishments and challenges of a variety of topics at the science-policy interface.

Photos By Eddie Arrossiwww.eaphoto.com

AGU Executive Director/CEO Christine McEntee (left) moderates the discussion with Dr. Cora Marrett (center) and Bart Gordon (right)

Opening Themes

A discussion of The Value of Science to the United States must include mention of the research and technological advancements that have improved lives and boosted economic growth. However, the role public funding should have in supporting scientific research and education is just as much a part of the conversation. Federal funding for scientific research represents only two percent of the current budget, which is the lowest in decades. Meanwhile, Gordon explained, the U.S. spends more on national defense than the next 10 countries combined. This creates many challenges at the science-policy interface. The top two funders of basic scientific research in the U.S. are the Federal Government and academic institutions, with Federal funding accounting for over half of the support for basic research. Gordon cautioned that “the formula for investing in research has changed in the new economy, to where long-term research returns are not getting funded.” Dr. Marrett explained that she views NSF as “seeking to keep from having dreams deferred,” and that since 1951, NSF has provided funding for over 200 Nobel laureates. NSF funded research has contributed to the development of the internet, Doppler radar, and many other revolutionary advancements. Dr. Marrett explained that support for the sciences is an investment in the future through science and engineering.

In an opening statement prior to the plenary session, AGU President Carol Finn explained that roughly 1/3 of the U.S. economy is impacted by weather and climate, and that in 2012, weather and climate related disasters cost $110 billion nationally. This totaled to the second greatest losses from weather and climate events since measurement began in 1980. Meanwhile, the U.S. has saved $4 for each dollar spent on mitigation for wind and climate events. Advances in science and technology are imperative to improve forecasting and response to natural disasters, and this will require a commitment to empowering discoveries. Given the limitations of scientific funding, there is a need to set funding priorities. Dr. Marrett suggests that this cannot be done exclusively by NSF or any other agency, but must be done in conjunction with communities of researchers, educators, and other key stakeholders. In discussing the potential future recourse for the challenges that science faces, Dr. Marrett offered that research developments can be realized, despite reduced budgets, through improved collaboration and increased sharing of research infrastructure and equipment.

Gordon explained that there is great value in effective science communication, to both the public and policymakers, in order to put a face on science. He believes that scientists need to not only communicate their science, but also to describe the long-term outcomes of it, and to “speak English.” Dr. Marrett added that, “science communication is a two-way street of understanding public concerns and explaining science to the public.” Rattling off the statistics of U.S. rankings in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathmatics (STEM) fields has not inspired children to go into science. The messages need to resonate well with the audience to motivate them. “Science is jobs,” said Gordon, “science education gives students knowledge to work at a higher level.”

Live Streaming, Polling, and Social Media

Conference attendees were not the only people involved in the plenary session. The event was live streamed, and is now archived on the Science Policy Conference website. People streaming the session were able to submit questions to the speakers, and anybody could ask questions, or participate in discussions, via Twitter. Many participants tweeted throughout the day using the hashtag for the conference (#AGUSPC), along with designated hashtags for each discussion session. Finally, the plenary session featured a live poll for online viewers and conference attendees, and 67 percent of responders believed that the biggest gap in Federal science funding is long term data collection and monitoring. Responders to the poll also overwhelmingly believed that research money should be split evenly between basic and applied research.

Panel Discussions

The conference featured three exciting topics at the science-policy interface: energy, hazards, and the Arctic. Each topic featured three discussion panels on a specific subject, which highlighted the state of science, policy, and future issues regarding the topic.

The Water-Energy Nexus panel introduced a problem seldom talked about; water treatment uses a great deal of energy and energy production requires a lot of water. Robin Newmark (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) explained that 12.6 percent of energy use in the U.S. is used for water treatment, meaning that saving water saves energy.

Photos By Eddie Arrossiwww.eaphoto.com

Janice Coen (National Center for Atmospheric Research) presents the science of recent wildfire events

Discussion panels throughout the hazards topic introduced another vital facet to science policy issues, which is risk management. Natural hazards can range from high-frequency and low impact events to extremely low-frequency “Megadisasters.” In The Science of Recent Severe Weather Events panel, Janice Coen (National Center for Atmospheric Research) explained that suppression costs of fires since 2000 have been over $2 billion per year, making wildfires an annual risk that must be managed. Lucile Jones (U.S. Geological Survey) spoke in the Potential for Megadisasters panel, and described the possibility of an ARkStorm, a storm from an atmospheric river that lasts so long it exceeds abilities of flood control systems. A major ARkStorm similar to the event that took place in California in 1861 would lead to around $800 billion in lost property and business interruptions.

In the panel Arctic Change Research: U.S. Government Interagency Collaboration, challenges were highlighted for the many issues being researched in the Arctic. Kathy Crane (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) identified international restrictions to Arctic research as a constant struggle, which requires collaboration with other countries to overcome.

Reception and Presidential Citations for Science and Society

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In order from left to right: Representative Rush Holt, James Balog, AGU President Carol Finn, Richard Harris, and AGU Executive Directer/CEO Chritine McEntee at the presentation of the AGU Presidential Citations for Science and Society

Following the conference events of the day, event attendees, event speakers, and congressional staff members met for a reception on Capitol Hill. This provided an opportunity for people to continue conversations from the day’s topics, network, and apply skills that they learned in the Science and Policy Communications Workshop. The AGU Presidential Citations for Science and Society were also awarded at the reception. In recognition of their leadership and vision in shaping policy and heightening public awareness of the value of Earth and space science, the 2013 citation recipients were: James Balog, Founder/Director of the Extreme Ice Survey, Richard Harris, National Public Radio (NPR) Science Desk Correspondent, and Congressman Rush Holt (D-New Jersey-12).

-Sam Brockway, AGU  Public Affairs Intern