In connection with the public launch of ScienceWorksForUS.org, there was a public event last night with university officials and members of Congress celebrating science funding in the economic recovery legislation. Jeff Mervis, a reporter for Science, has reported that no Republican members of Congress attended, because the organizers invited only those legislators that supported the economic recovery legislation. The headline of the blog post Mervis wrote is a bit more sensationalist than the post itself, but the implication – that science is becoming a Democratic issue – is worth considering.
Daniel Sarewitz went further with this possibility in an article earlier this year for Issues in Science and Technology. It’s a thoughtful piece, worth taking the time to read carefully. But I’m still not persuaded that science is, or is becoming, a Democratic issue. As I’ve written before (and as I think Sarewitz suggests in the body of his article), science does not map neatly onto party lines, and parties will use science to support decisions that irritate voters of any and all political stripe. The doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget was implemented by a Democratic and Republican President (and by Republican Congresses). A Republican President developed the American Competitiveness Initiative and a Democratic Congress eventually enacted much of it into law. This doesn’t fit into that overhyped, underthought meme of the last few years, the so-called “War on Science.”
Ultimately, the bigger issue for the science advocacy community is getting people and policymakers to care enough to support their goals. And I just don’t see either party caring enough to really embrace science in the consistent and important way that would make favoring one party really politically damaging. Do Sarewitz and Mervis have valid points? Yes. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
It does seem dumb for the ScienceWorksForUS.org folks to invite just stimulus supporters to an event (though I can see why they might think it could come across as rubbing their noses in it). Why not try and sell more people on the value of scientific research in the stimulus bill through the event? What’s more troubling to me than the embrace of a particular party is the embrace of a particular budgetary action. In a couple of years the stimulus money will have been committed, and where will the effort be? The kind of tracking possible on the new website doesn’t have to be limited to stimulus spending. This narrow focus smacks of the same short-sighted thinking about the budget doubling of NIH that has produced too many Ph.D. holding biomedical scientists, with too little grant money to go around.