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January 2014 Issue

New Paradigm Needed For Federal Research Funding

By Robert B. Gagosian
President and CEO, The Consortium for Ocean Leadership

What can you say about the nation's capital when Congress has the lowest approval ratings recorded in Gallup polling history and the president's approval rating has sunk to the lowest of his presidency? We appear to be in a perpetual stalemate with fiscal brinksmanship becoming the new normal. The government recently shut down for the first time in 17 years, and you have to ask: what did we get for paying hundreds of thousands of federal workers to stay home? Only the promise of more fiscal showdowns on the horizon—first in January when another budget sequester is scheduled to go into effect and then in February when the debt limit needs to be extended again, putting in jeopardy the full faith and credit of the United States government. These kinds of activities are having a continuing deleterious effect on the budgets for scientific research as they continue to get tighter and tighter.

Budget Crisis
The Consortium for Ocean Leadership is a leading voice for the ocean science community with the mission to advance research, education and sound ocean policy. While disasters named Sandy, Katrina, Haiyan, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima have made the need for observing, understanding and forecasting ocean processes and conditions more imperative, the political morass in Washington is making our job more difficult than ever.

As an eternal optimist, I must admit that even I am beginning to have my doubts on whether our nation can remain the world leader in innovation if we continue attempting to balance the budget on the back of discretionary programs, including science. The Department of Defense is scheduled to take the brunt of the next budget sequester in January, and I suspect that research and development programs will share the pain. We have partnered with the University Corp. for Atmospheric Research to reach out to the members of the Congressional budget conference, encouraging them to find a compromise to replace the sequester and restore funding for research programs and science agencies critical to the economy.

If cooler minds do not prevail, then I suspect we will continue to see erosion in federal science programs, in critical infrastructure and eventually human capital. How can we expect to recruit and sustain the next generation of scientists if they have a less than one in 10 chance of having their grants funded? Why would the best minds that come to America to be trained want to stay here and contribute to our nation during such a dire fiscal environment? I am concerned that this could lead to our best and brightest looking for opportunities in other countries.

Long-Term View for Research
It was not only the budget crisis that was noteworthy in 2013. There were also the expanding expectations of politicians who demanded more scientific results with societal implications as quickly as possible, while calling for funding cuts to basic research. For instance, the Chairman of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), began questioning the peer-review process that has been the foundation for the U.S. to be the world leader in innovation. While every scientist I know has had a 'great' proposal declined by a federal agency and probably questioned how the panel could reject it, on the whole, I believe they would all state that the U.S. has the best research proposal review system in the world. And, although we should always strive for improvement, I fear questioning the peer-review process while cutting research funds is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The desire to have a clear and definable return on investment for basic research is understandable for political purposes, but can be quite harmful for scientific ones.

These issues are creeping into otherwise popular legislation such as the Sound Science Act, which was attached to the House Farm Bill as a section titled 'Ensuring High Standards for Agency Use of Scientific Information,' and the FIRST Act, which deals with coordination and priorities for federal STEM programs, is an evolution of the previously floated High-Quality Research Act and is attached to the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. The result encourages, at minimum, an overpromising of the research conclusions from a grant, which hurts the integrity of the researcher and the system, or, more problematically, a fundamental shift away from understanding the central premise of basic research.

I fear that in the long-term this shift may undermine our ability to have the basic knowledge needed to apply to the next generation's challenges for the future success of our society.

Fortunately, the gridlock in Congress means that efforts in the House to alter the merit-review system or undermine the peer-review process will likely not become law. But, if we do not educate our elected officials, including the proponents of these policies, on the harmful impacts these could have on the scientific endeavor, then a future political shift in Washington could see these policies become law.

Taking Action
So, while Congress may be accomplishing less than ever, that does not mean we should stand by and do nothing. We need to be vigilant in reaching out to Congress and explaining why oceanography is important for the nation.

Sandy, Katrina, Haiyan, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima are all excellent examples of its importance, notably because they have unfortunately touched millions of lives and cost billions of dollars to economies. The best science is essential if we are to understand the processes responsible for these events and to obtain cutting-edge predictive capability.

Meanwhile, we also need to be reaching out to industry and local communities to find new partnerships and ways of doing business. We need to be innovative in how we conduct research, the facilities we use and the data we share. Much in the same way that oceanography changed at the end of the Cold War, we are facing the need for a new paradigm.

Ocean Leadership represents 90 of the nation's leading oceanographic research and education institutions, and also manages several large ocean research and education programs. As such, we will continue to advocate strongly for science funding and the integrity of the peer-review process. It is essential that you continue to do the same. There are many challenges ahead, but I firmly believe if we work together, we will succeed in strengthening our ocean scientific enterprise, so crucial for the future of this country.

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