October 13, 2011
Dear Members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction:
U.S. lawmakers have historically demonstrated strong bipartisan support for scientific research and education resulting in unprecedented advances and opportunities for our nation, especially since World War II. There is therefore a strong case to be made for caution and careful consideration of proposed cuts to federal scientific research programs. Cuts made to these programs today will have long-lasting impacts as science builds on itself. Scientific progress and our nation's welfare can be seriously hindered by even modest changes to current programs. You will receive many arguments to sustain particular programs, but those where modest investments now pay big dividends in the future deserve special consideration for a reprieve from major budget reductions. We can rarely reach back to correct a past oversight, but we can avoid actions that have negative repercussions far into the future, which is the case for reduced investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics research and education.
As was true after the launch of Sputnik, we are at a moment in history when sustained investments in scientific research and education empowers individuals, solves vexing problems, and creates new economic opportunities that will improve lives in the U.S. and around the world. Please work to ensure that stable and predictable funding is provided for scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematics research programs across the federal government. A sustained commitment to research and development as well as science education in the coming years will help our nation's scientists, research portfolio managers, and science educators make the discoveries that will create opportunities for future generations and grow our economy.
In recent months, we have heard calls from some lawmakers who believe it would be wise to eliminate large research programs in one agency or another. Sadly, these calls seem often to be based on little more than a cursory review of a research program or by a belief that research programs with the same or similar name are inherently redundant. Such a superficial review of programs and priorities is a recipe for bad public policies with long-term negative impacts on our future economic prosperity.
Some reports have indicated that a few lawmakers have proposed eliminating federal support for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences at the National Science Foundation. Given the importance of these disciplines to modern society, it is difficult to understand such a recommendation. Consider some of the important contributions the social and behavioral sciences offer to modern society, including business. Psychology and sociology inform our understanding of why individuals accept or reject technology in their daily lives. These scientific disciplines also offer insights into how individuals and groups behave, an understanding that can inform how computer scientists and engineers design technology or how a police officer might diffuse a hostile interaction. Social science research is at the heart of the discoveries recognized with the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics.
Some have suggested that medical research programs in the Department of Defense should be eliminated or transferred to the National Institutes of Health. Certainly, a passing review might suggest that this is a logical action. Importantly, however, a careful evaluation of the purposes and objectives of the programs shows that this is a bad idea. Medical research conducted by the Department of Defense is done in the interest of national, regional, and international security considerations, and to serve the needs of U.S. military personnel stationed around the world. Importantly, in addition to being exposed to hostile enemy combatants, our service men and women are exposed to rare and emerging infectious diseases not found in the United States. The Military Infectious Disease Program, for example, has played a significant role in the development of 25 percent of the total innovative vaccines licensed in the United States since 1962. This research program has also contributed to the development of diagnostic products, including devices that may be used in the field, to diagnose human infections and to determine if insects are carrying infectious agents transmissible to humans. Moreover, the military is able to maintain laboratories overseas, often in locations unavailable to other U.S. scientists. This simple fact makes the medical research programs of the Department of Defense essential elements of our national scientific research and development enterprise, as well as part of the U.S. national security infrastructure.
Climate research has also been a target for some political interests. The argument has been made that the government should defund climate research in exchange for increased investments in weather research. Weather research is important, but so is climate research. These areas address different questions over different time scales and use different research tools and methods. A failure to invest in climate research equates to a pledge to weaken U.S. agriculture, hinder wise natural resource management, increase the risk of damage to civilian and military infrastructure especially in coastal zones, and weaken our ability to protect public health from diseases that are emerging as climatic conditions change.
We recognize that you face a daunting and unenviable task. However, adopting budget proposals that eliminate federal research and education programs or fail to fully consider the mission-related interests of agency research efforts will create new problems and reduce opportunities for future generations.
Thank you for the opportunity to share our concerns. The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is a nonprofit scientific association dedicated to advancing biological research and education for the welfare of society. AIBS works to ensure that the public, legislators, funders, and the community of biologists have access to and use information that will guide them in making informed decisions about matters that require biological knowledge. Founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences, AIBS became an independent, member-governed organization in the 1950s. Today, AIBS has nearly 160 member organizations with a combined individual membership of approximately 250,000.
James P. Collins, Ph.D.