Scientists vs Budget Cuts: Looking Back at the March for Science

Earth Day 2017 saw scientists and science supporters rallying in more than 600 registered events held on every continent. Their April 22 demonstrations, known collectively as the March for Science,  were aimed at sending a message to policymakers that issues like basic research, evidence-based policy and peer-reviewed science matter to many constituents.

And while the march’s origins were tied up with concerns that the new presidential administration in the United States was no friend to basic research, one of the march’s key takeaways – keep funding science as an investment in the future – resonated in every country.

“This isn’t about any one politician — this is about science and policy, scientists and science supporters,” according to the March website. As Rush Holt, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science explained recently, “This did not begin in November. It’s true the march idea came up in January, but it was built on a growing concern that reached a level of anxiety about the conditions under which science can thrive.”

In London, where there were also large rallies being held, Brexit has caused scientists to wonder what comes next for research within European institutions. And specific areas of science under attack have also drawn supporters. Across the globe, from Australia to Switzerland reducing the effects of climate change was a key concern; as The Independent reported from the UK, marchers “…used the opportunity to call for more ambitious climate action in line with scientific recommendations to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C”

And yet any discussion of policy eventually concerns money. While the recently released budget in Congress does not cut science research funding from current levels, early takes on the budget absolutely did. The so-called “skinny budget” from the Donald trump administration, for example, included the following cuts:

  • National Institutes of Health ($6 billion cut from its $34 billion budget, about 18 percent)
  • The Department of Energy ($900 million cut from DOE Office or 20 percent of $5 billion & Science and elimination of the $300 million ARPA-E or 6 percent)
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (5 percent cut)
  • Environmental Protection Agency ($2.6 billion cut or 31.4 percent of its budget).
  • Health and Human Services and Education cuts (28.7 and 16.2 percent respectively)

While the National Science Foundation, which is the largest single funder of social science research in the United States, was not even mentioned in the skinny budget, a subsequent White House spreadsheet reported on by CQ Press showed Trump was considering a $350 million cut to the NSF research budget.

No one in the administration or the Congress would bad mouth science itself, of course. Lobbyist Mark Vieth recently explained at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association how some support science with their rhetoric but not with their legislation. “[House Science Committee Chairman] Lamar Smith is on record as calling for more spending on science. But,” Vieth said Smith and his peers would argue, “’With a projected $19 trillion deficit we must prioritize, and see what be preserved. The soft sciences do not support direct competitiveness, and many of the grants have gone to questionable sources with no clear immediate payoff.’” Vieth said it’s important for scientists, and in particular social scientists, to therefore provide real-world examples of their research ultimately supporting real-world achievement.

While that skinny budget proposal had no legal standing – spending must originate in the House of Representatives – it definitely telegraphed what the administration’s goals were.

The website, for example, states, “President Trump will end the defense sequester and submit a new budget to Congress outlining a plan to rebuild our military. We will provide our military leaders with the means to plan for our future defense needs.” In doing so, Trump would scale back on much domestic spending, particularly in sciences unpopular with the Republican Party, as proposed cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency demonstrate.

Leveraging Trump’s own campaign slogan of Make America Great Again, scientists argue that research is a necessary component. “We know that our science is one of the things that has made us great,” Diane Krause, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, told the Hartford Courant. Krause explained how she assumed others believed this as well stating, in regards to the progress of science in our country, “we thought were obvious.”

Is that message obvious? Hahrie Han at the University of California, Santa Barbara studies activism and social movements. Han told The Atlantic that message discipline is key, and not always on display:

Let’s say they had one very clear thing like “We want to double NSF funding,” and they got 3.5 million people out. If I’m an elected official, I’d think: I really need to pay attention to NSF funding! The fact that the goals are really disparate makes it harder to translate whatever happens in the march to political influence. And related to my points about centralization or decentralization, one of the challenges is what happens to the coalition afterwards? If they’re too disparate or fragmented, it could be harder to coalesce around shared goals. (2017)

Han continues to state that the leaders and, or, participants of these marches must have close relations with different political elite in order to execute an overall outcome. For instance, in this case it may be no cuts to science spending, or if they can civilly compromise, as Han suggest a cordial environment, a reduction of cuts.

On top of this, Han explains, is the impact factor. Organizations that are able of rendering a voters mind from one opinion to the other and changing their vote holds much significance. Politicians rely on their jobs and when the American electorate, that can change its mind at any moment during any election cycle, hires them makes the politicians very uneasy to powerful movements.

With a huge voice in the world now, scientists and their science supports hope to garner attention around the importance of scientific funding, and the relevance of it. This team proclaims, “We Marched. Now We Act.”

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Nathan Ragusa

Nathan Ragusa is an intern with the SAGE Publishing PR and Conventions team. He graduates with a degree in political science from Arizona State University in 2017.

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