When you get right down to it, basic research is like Renaissance art: it's bankrolled by states and princes. An unrecognized da Vinci or Michelangelo had to win the patronage of a Medici or Borgia. A researcher has to win a grant from NIH or Hughes or Gates. Applied research can find backers on the open market, but advancing the great work of fundamental science depends, in a way, on the kindness of strangers.
Individual scientists don't seem to shy away from speaking out on social and scientific issues, but funding issues strike them dumb. “If I make noise,” they seem to be thinking, “I may be passed over next time the alms are passed around.” Or maybe there just aren't enough voices. The National Science Board estimates that there are about 292,000 working life-scientists in the U.S.—one thousandth of the country's population (1).
But, in this political winter, we are seeing signs of a thaw in researchers’ traditional reserve. Between sessions of December's American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) meeting, organizers ran a loop of public service announcements—the kind one used to see at the movies before theater-owners realized they could get us to pay to watch commercials for luxury cars and the National Guard. Instead of extolling the lobby popcorn, however, ASCB advertised political action.
“Tired of waiting while your gels run?” asked the slide over a photo of five researchers slumped over break-room tables. “Put that time to good use. Call or write your Representatives and ask them to support the NIH and NSF.”
Researchers with a few minutes were asked to write their members of Congress, or join the Coalition for the Life Science's Congressional Liaison Committee (2), or sign up for ASCB Project 50, which aims to have at least one society member from each of the 50 states serve on ASCB's public policy advocacy team (3). Biologists with a few open hours were urged to visit their Senators’ and Representatives’ local offices. And those with really slow experiments and a full day of downtime were exhorted to visit their legislators in Washington.
A few weeks later, another group of scientists launched Science Debate 2008 (4), an attempt to push science policy into the forefront of the year's political campaigns.
And most recently, the non-partisan Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA) launched the Science, Health and Related Policies (SHARP) Network (5), “an online tool that allows the public to participate in tracking the science, technology and health policy positions of elected officials and candidates for office.”
Taken together, these three programs define a three-pronged approach to resuscitating biological research and research funding. First, make sure that our elected officials at every level understand the value of basic research and know, directly, how strongly we support funding it. Second, insist that legislators and candidates address research issues and tell us where they stand. And third, know those positions and give them proper weight when it's time to cast our votes.