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Why Scientists Should Start Playing The Political Game

The National Academy of Sciences’ recent report on the behavioral and social sciences reveals that federal support of this domain of science has declined over the past 16 years, even though support for other areas of science has grown substantially. The report makes a good case for the public benefits of research in behavioral and social sciences and argues for increased funding. This argument, however, is likely to fall on deafened ears, as almost every segment of the scientific communi

By Dismukes | August 8, 1988

The National Academy of Sciences’ recent report on the behavioral and social sciences reveals that federal support of this domain of science has declined over the past 16 years, even though support for other areas of science has grown substantially. The report makes a good case for the public benefits of research in behavioral and social sciences and argues for increased funding. This argument, however, is likely to fall on deafened ears, as almost every segment of the scientific community has pleaded for more funds in recent years.

What can behavioral and social scientists—or, for that matter, any other scientific disciplines in similar straits—do to promote their case better? The answer lies in recognizing the political realities of science funding. We cannot escape the fact that conducting research, however pioneering and important, is simply not enough to ensure fiscal health. Scientists must also play a political game to win friends and support in high places.

To begin with, scientists can help themselves attract research funding by doing more to harness the power of the press, and thus tell the public and public representatives about their research.

For a successful example of this strategy, witness the neuroscience community. Neuroscience, which emerged as a distinct discipline only in the past 20 years or so, has quickly captured both public imagination and congressional support. Each year brings forth a spate of books popularizing neuroscience. Studies of the brain are among the most popular topics in the growing coverage of science by newspapers and public television.

Is neuroscience intrinsically more interesting to the lay person than experimental psychology, which receives far less coverage? Quite the contrary. People are intrigued by neuroscience largely because it helps us understand human behavior, both normal and disordered. Experimental psychology addresses at least as directly as neuroscience the nature of perception, cognition, action, and social behavior. Psychophysical research is also stimulating new approaches to artificial intelligence. It is not hard to interest lay people in the development of machines that will be able to recognize human speech, identify visual objects, and learn from experience.

Why has neuroscience been so successful in attracting public attention? One reason is the remarkable cohesiveness of this community, which is especially impressive in view of the wide range of topics covered in the field. The Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C. is the focal point of this co hesiveness, and the annual meeting is a major event for the community. The society operates a press room at the annual meeting, and every year many articles appear in newspapers around the country as the result of the meeting. The society also organizes biennial work- shops for science writers, providing another route for disseminating information. In addition, medical schools now routinely call press conferences to announce “break-throughs” in biomedical or neuroscience research.

Influencing the news media requires more than just a pressroom at annual meetings or press conferences, however. Personal and trusting relationships between scientists and writers must be created. In addition to promoting media coverage, such relationships can fa cilitate balanced coverage. For example, good science writers often call on scientists they trust for suggestions and advice on whom to in- terview, especially on controversial topics.

Compared to the neuroscience community, behavioral and social scientists have been sadly remiss in publicizing their contributions. There is no strong single society to monitor research developments, disseminate information, and organize newsworthy gatherings. Only a few individual scientists have attempted to work with the media. And how often do universities hold press conferences about dramatic advances in experimental psychology? I suspect that many other disciplines could profit from the neuroscience example.

The scientific community as a whole has also learned that the availability of federal funds for a field of science depends on persuading Congress of the public benefits of research in that field. This requires considerable and continual effort. Each scientific discipline must keep track of critical issues and events in Congress— especially appropriations. And when key issues arise, scientists must be ready both to provide background information and to gain Congress’ ear with personal testimony. The physics and neuroscience communities, in part because of strong professional societies, have been especially successful in mobilizing their scientists and bringing in Nobel laureates and other luminaries to testify before Congress.

Another way of gaining influence is through organizations that benefit from research applications. Voluntary groups concerned with neurological diseases, for instance, have greatly helped neuroscientists lobby for increased support. Experimental psychologists should join with potential users of their research to lobby for funds. For example, research on human perception and research to develop machines that can recognize speech and visual scenes are likely to have a large impact on industry and economics in coming years. Recent developments in cognitive psychology promise to revolutionize aptitude testing in schools and industry. Members of Congress are just as interested as you or I in how their children are selected for college, medical school, and law school.

Behavioral and social scientists are trying to get the message out. The Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences (an effective organization badly in need of a shorter name) operates a luncheon seminar series on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress, staff members, and federal officials are invited to hear distinguished behavioral scientists describe research that bears directly on public issues. These seminars offer a valuable opportunity to meet and influence legislators, but the community as a whole needs to do more. Its diverse professional societies should work together to develop a public relations effort to make their areas of research more visible to the public and Congress.

Individual scientists can also contribute by introducing themselves and their work to their own congressional representatives and staff. In addition, the research community would do well to track research appropriations in each of the several agencies that fund its research, and to establish relationships with the appropriate congressional committees and staff.

Reversing the decline in the research budget for any discipline requires political savvy, and the social and behavioral science community needs to become more adept at playing the game.

R. K Dismukes is Director of Life Sciences at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research


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