Sequestration: Uncertainty…and Opportunity

By Alaina G. Levine

740 Experts agree that sequestration, which took effect March 1, is bad for science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) noted that the congressional appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013 effectively slashed federal funding for research to its lowest point since 2002. (A) And according to Research America, NIH and NSF were due to lose almost $2.4 billion and $538,000 respectively, with almost 2,300 fewer grants to be given out by NIH in fiscal year 2013.

“Science is not something you can turn off and on like a light switch,” says Dr. David R. Wilson, Director of American Indian Affairs and Policy, SACNAS. “It’s not something you can put in a corner and come back to when you have funding.” Indeed, “the essence of research is thinking three to five years ahead. And when you have a program that cuts it away at the knees, it takes away the long-term planning,” adds Dr. Juan Meza, dean, School of Natural Sciences, University of California, Merced.

Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, acting chief officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, NIH, couldn’t agree more. “Science by its very nature builds on itself so you lose that long-range impact” with sequestration measures, he says. The positive impact of scientific research can be lost in just one year of budget cuts, and the compounding effect over time is even more troublesome.

Losing Time and Talent

The key is that we lose “time and minds”: talented people who cannot only conduct game-changing research, but also launch innovations that enable the next insight or measurement to take place. In fields as diverse as particle physics and evolutionary biology, projects take years and often decades to gain capacity, whether it’s in the design and construction of new instrumentation or creation of a novel mouse model.735 Dr. Pettigrew

“The longer it takes to train more scientists, the longer it takes to develop tools and make more discoveries,” says Pettigrew. And this puts the U.S. at a disadvantage against its global competitors, who keep funneling financial support toward research enterprises. “Logically, now is not the time to ratchet back,” he notes. “Other countries have increased the funds for biomedical research…. The rest of the world is forging ahead.”

Because sequestration impacts both pure and applied research and researchers, there is great concern that it will persuade students or early-career professionals to leave STEM. And the last thing the U.S. can afford to lose right now is its best minds working on the most challenging problems. “If people don’t think that science is a viable career, they’ll abandon it,” says Dr. Robert Barnhill, vice president for Science Policy & Strategic Initiatives, SACNAS. Indeed, “Sequestration will drive away lots of students from basic scientific research,” notes Wilson. “As they craft their career plans, they might posit that the pursuit of a STEM vocation is too much of a risk, especially since they don’t know whether there will be solid funding for projects in the future.”

Graduate students and postdocs will be particularly hard hit. Meza predicts that with fewer training grants available, professors will be less inclined to hire greater numbers of protégés, especially “if faculty members don’t know if they’re going to have funding in a few years,” he says. And junior faculty on the tenure clock are also in trouble: “if they are unable to secure financial resources for their research endeavors, their productivity will decline and therefore, their publication numbers reduced––which diminishes their chance for tenure,” adds Meza.

A Decrease in Diversity

As a result, diversity in STEM fields will decrease, which may put strategic U.S. research programs in peril. “It is in the best interest of the nation to capture…and make better use of our natural talent pool that resides in underrepresented groups,” says Pettigrew. “It will benefit this country immensely.” Dr. Gabriel A. Montaño, technical staff member at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, Los Alamos National Laboratory, sees investment in a diverse STEM workforce as a national security concern. “Diversity in STEM is not a gesture on behalf of our government,” he says. “When you have a more diverse workforce environment, it leads to more success…. It’s a question of national security. One of our advantages as a nation is our diversity. That’s our greatest attribute and resource, and if we continue to just pay homage but not to invest in it, we’re going to be in dire straits.”

A Potential Light

Sequestration will create challenges, but this is no time to stop moving forward, argue SACNAS leaders. In fact, it is in difficult times like these when organizations like SACNAS can really make a positive impact in and for the community. Montaño, who serves on the SACNAS Board of Directors says, “We’re in a really good position to help effect change because we are a program- and policy-based society. We can help drive the agendas in Washington as opposed to simply waiting for them to be set and responding to them.”

Taking Action

738 Dr. MezaSACNAS members, as individuals, can and should take action, says Meza. (B) “As scientists, one of the things that we are really good at is making a case for science and research. We need to be able to tell the public why they and the politicians should invest in science,” he notes. “We need to be more proactive in getting our message out there.”

“Be vocal about science with our politicians,” confirms Dr. Christopher Andronicos, associate professor in the department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University. “We as scientists need to stand up and better articulate the relevance of science to different audiences…. Always have your elevator speech ready in very simple language to explain what you do and why it’s important.” He stresses that we should emphasize the day-to-day relevance of investigations and the significant financial return on investment that research provides the economy. “Spending money now means getting money back,” echoes Barnhill. “The public needs to be convinced that basic research is needed to develop new products and to address pressing global issues.”

Furthermore, “if every SACNISTA wrote his or her congressmember [regarding sequestration], that would have the potential to effect legislative change,” says Andronicos. Barnhill suggests contacting not only your federal representative, but your state and even local government officials too. “It’s never too late,” he says. “Congress made the law—they can change it tomorrow.”

Stay Focused

Although leaders do suggest being proactive, they caution this should not be done at the expense of science and scholarship itself. 739 Dr. MontañoStudents should always put their studies first, and midcareer professionals need to “dig in and get your tenure,” adds Wilson. “We need as many minority tenured professionals nationwide as possible, because they can help implement change.”

“Become a good scientist, and then you can really help,” affirms Montaño. “Congress is going to listen to experts. So focus on your independent development and use SACNAS as a resource. When SACNAS needs you, we’ll come looking for you,” he adds with a chuckle.

But you can and should remain knowledgeable about sequestration challenges. “An informed population is a powerful population,” says Montaño. “The greatest strength you can gain as a scientist is your analytical skills, which will put you ahead of the game. So stay informed, be analytical, and you’ll see what needs to be done. You never know where you can help until you understand the problem.”

Strategies for Advancement

The organization is already strategizing how it can best advance science in the community during this challenging time. “At SACNAS, we’re seeing this as a chance to diversify our funding model and alter it in a transformative way that puts our society in a stronger position, financially and politically,” says Montaño.

SACNAS continues to align itself with tactical partners such as other science societies and federal agencies with a continuous mission of serving as a consensus builder.

“There is opportunity to be found in this challenge,” says Montaño. “It’s a blessing in disguise when a situation falls upon you that forces you to face adversity.” Wilson argues that sequestration may end up being a good thing for diversity. With a reduction in openings both for jobs and funding sources, “SACNAS can ensure our students are the crème de la crème,” says Wilson. Through mentorship and strategic programs such as the Summer Leadership Institute, “we can make them stronger and more competitive for the fewer positions, which can lead to an increase in diversity.”

“Washington may dish out sequestration and other quandaries, but the SACNAS community can take it—and ultimately, thrive,” attests Barnhill. He urges all members and especially early-career scientists and engineers, to not abandon their passion and commitment. “There is overwhelming logic that science helps society in so many ways,” he says. “Rivers can be diverted but they can’t be stopped. This is just a little impediment. Over the long haul, common sense will prevail.”

Notes

(A) “Impacts of Sequestration Take Shape as Congress Drops R&D Spending Below 2012 Levels,” AAAS, 25 March 2013.

(B) If and when individuals contact their government officials, they will not be representing SACNAS, nor speaking on behalf of SACNAS as an organization.

About the Author

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers will be published by Wiley in 2014. She can be reached through her website at www.alainalevine.com or through her twitter handle @AlainaGLevine.

Related Resources

View a printer friendly version of this article

View the entire summer/fall 2013 edition of SACNAS News

Read more SACNAS Science Policy articles

Sequestration Resources, aggregated by AAAS: includes websites, reports, articles, and responses by various federal agencies and science societies

“Impacts of Sequestration Take Shape as Congress Drops R&D Spending Below 2012 Levels,” AAAS, 25 March 2013.

“The Sequester Is Going to Devastate U.S. Science Research for Decades,” The Atlantic, 12 March 2013.

“Mapping the Effects of the Sequester on Science,” NPR, 1 March 2013.

Dr. Francis Collins , head of NIH, sings the sequester blues!