SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
13 July 2017
Volume 18 Issue 7
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Knock, Knock, Knocking on D.C.’s Door

Jen Lynch, SETAC Publications Manager

On 8 June, our publishing partner, John Wiley & Sons, arranged a day of “door-knocks” in Washington, D.C. Along with representatives from the publisher, executives from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, The Millbank Quarterly, the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, the AlphaMed Company and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) joined Charles Menzie, SETAC Global Executive Director, and me on a day of interviews with congressional representatives and staff, the Minister Counselor for Science and Technology at the Chinese Embassy, and analysts at the Heritage Foundation.

In addition to promoting SETAC to elected representatives and introducing the wealth of scientific expertise at their disposal when considering policy, we were there to talk about broader concerns to the community: travel bans interrupting scientific collaboration and eroding conference attendance, funding cuts undermining research progress, government mandates and guidance in open access and open data policies, and sweeping agency reorganization, to name a few. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or prepare for the meetings with Chen Futao, the Minister Counselor of China, or Jack Spencer, the Vice President of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

Our day started with Spencer and a lively debate about the role the federal government should play in science funding. The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank that has tremendous influence on the current U.S. administration. They have made policy recommendations that include eliminating the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), rationalizing the spend on federal research and development, and introducing strict transparency to regulatory science. Spencer took a “market-driven” approach to every issue that was raised and strongly felt that universities and businesses were far more trustworthy than government. His position was that the government should be able to respond to any disaster, whether it is a result of climate change or war. He argued that industry should be funding all the research in the fields in which they made their money (ex., oil and gas industry should be investing in energy research). Unsurprisingly, our dazzling credentials and sharp rhetoric with discussions that focused on multi-sector balance did nothing to change hearts and minds at the Heritage Foundation. However, we did walk away with the idea of fostering a dialogue with businesses and industry about the funding gaps in research left by government cuts, which may help to facilitate the interaction between researchers and the private sector.

We then moved over to the Senate offices to meet with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. staffers. Nelson’s staff was interested in discussing the open data movement. The OSTP does provide data quality guidelines, but the government has been uninterested in getting too involved in funder requirements. We noted that there was accelerated movement toward open data, but there needs to be long-term support, international standards, flexibility (for example, confidentiality in human trials) and that the data was worthless if it weren’t discoverable. The costs to store have been prohibitive, and several repositories have failed because their funding has been year-to-year. Direction for the open data movement has not been coming from the funders, it has been coming from publishers. Guidance from government would be welcomed to avoid the piecemeal approach that the open access movement took, resulting in several hundreds of differing policies from funders, universities and labs. Booker’s office articulated their priorities by agency and agreed that international collaboration was crucial to solving complex environmental problems. The Booker staffer was the first to express confidence that the budgetary cuts to research would not be as severe as feared. There seems to be bipartisan support for funding science, though later we would hear of biases against environmental science.

A short walk across the Hill brought us to a block of meetings at the House offices building. The first meeting was with the only scientist in the U.S. House of Representatives, Bill Foster, D-Ill. Foster came out swinging for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has been active in trying to keep the jobs perspective in the forefront to appeal to bipartisan support for science and agency funding. Foster wanted to discuss scientific integrity – linking data sets, addressing conflict of interest, the prevalence of predatory publishers and conferences – and the evolution of preprints. It was comforting to hear that at least one representative on the Committee on Science, Space and Technology was well-versed in the subjects that we deal with every day.

The next meeting switched gears, and Angel Nigaglioni, a legislative director in Rep. José Serrano’s, D-N.Y., office, expressed a need for scientists to create allies with their local representatives. He offered some advice about informing members on your research and research needs. He said it was helpful to leave a handout that explicitly addresses a bill or budgetary line item, your position on it, what you are requesting, your justification, and a personal note about how it is helpful to you and others you know. The last piece, the narrative, your personal story or a story about something directly and locally impacted by your research, was a topic that came up again and again. We were advised that stories from the district, the “so what” of the research, how the research has directly helped constituents, would make the biggest in-road with legislators.

Our meetings at the House offices rounded out with a staffer from Katherine Clark’s, D-Mass., office, and Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., and one of his staffers. Both used the time to discuss the budget, and both felt that the cuts in their current form were unlikely to be passed. Research in climate change and social science were said to be most at-risk. They also mentioned that environmental sciences are also at a high risk because environmental research is seen by some as the foundation for additional regulation, which is thought to stymie industry and business development.

We took a short drive to the Chinese Embassy where we held our final meeting of the day with Chen Futao, Minister Counselor for Science and Technology, and two of his staff. China has increased its research funding and investment in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education over the past ten years. Futao gave us an overview about how science is funded in China, with local government picking up a great deal of the funding burden. This results in a more applied focus of research – local governments want to see a direct return on their investment – and it also results in many silos across the republic. China wants to explore efficiencies for sharing research across cities and provinces more openly. The most interesting discussion was about the intense pressure to publish in China. Futao sees this as a major problem that is getting in the way of science. It has made Chinese scientists a target for predatory publishers and undermined interest in long-term, iterative projects. He expressed a desire for scientific societies to help create a new way to evaluate researcher performance. The current method of tying professional growth to publishing output and impact factor is corruptive.

In all, it was a productive day. In addition to walking away with insight into current legislative and funding priorities, budgetary processes and bills to keep an eye on, we made connections and learned from other society executives. Scientists are “waking up” to the need for more engagement with policy makers and elected officials. We here at SETAC are looking for ways to support that need. The AGU and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have tremendous resources and have a history of government engagement, so we are exploring ways to partner with them. Our regional chapters are poised to make the greatest impact at local levels, so we would like to create resources for those efforts. We welcome input (what would you like us to be doing?) and updates about your successes.

This event is hosted by Wiley annually, and there is a similar event in Brussels each year as well. I am certainly looking forward to the next one.

Author’s contact information: jen.lynch@setac.org

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