Congress appropriates science funding for FY 2018.


[Jesus asked] “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

 “The first,” they answered. – Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)


Last week, the president signed the final 2018 appropriations bill passed by the Congress. Debate over specifics of the bill had riveted public attention for some time; almost every American found some of the bits likable, other aspects less so.

If you happen to be a scientist, though, looking at the budget through that narrow lens, the final numbers appeared quite a bit better than you might have feared. The starting point of the proposed budget and potential for cutbacks to specific agencies, programs, and subject matter had been cause for concern, right up until the end.

But, again for scientists, that end proved generally positive. FYI[1], the American Institute of Physics’ science policy newsletter, even went so far as to label the result a windfall for science. Their figure, reproduced above, shows the results for several agencies.

Congress went home for a scheduled (and undoubtedly welcome!) Easter-Passover break.

The budget, and its coincident seasonal timing, calls to mind a discussion that Jesus had with Pharisees and other religious leaders, recorded during a similar run-up to Passover some 2000 years ago. A piece of that conversation opens this post. The chief priests and elders – the establishment – were questioning his authority; he in turn noted their hypocrisy, especially evident compared with the faith he found in the underserved and disenfranchised of that day – tax collectors, prostitutes, et al.

As part of the back-and-forth, this well-known parable.

One question we might ask is this: focusing solely on the science element of the 2018 budget, which son was the Congress in this parable?

The first.

This matters. Congressional support for science budgets holds many positive implications for the world’s future prospects, and for America’s place in that world. Innovation is the key to greater economic prosperity; more sustainable use of food, water, and energy resources; reduction in world poverty; resilience to hazards; and protection of the environment; and so much more. And America, representing 4% of world’s population but 20% or more of its consumption, necessarily shoulders a big and globally visible responsibility for moving things forward. The competition for innovation, and the corresponding competition for people’s hearts and minds, is the big story of the 21st century.

In the face of this, how might scientists conduct ourselves? Well, we might start by expressing thanks to Congress and the American people, for one. We might redouble our efforts to advance knowledge and understanding, with a sense of urgency derived not merely from a desire for personal gain or reputation, but with an eye to its greater societal benefit. (After all, society is footing the bill… and major portions of the society paying for our work are not so well off as scientists as a class.) We might communicate and celebrate those benefits with those around us.

Why bring this up now, Bill?

Here’s why. While our gratitude, sense of urgency, and commitment to public well-being ought to be ongoing, one moment is coming up where what we scientists think as a group will be especially visible and on full display: the March for Science, scheduled for April 14.

In view of this show of bipartisan Congressional understanding of the importance of science and corresponding support, it would be inappropriate to come across in April as ungrateful, self-centered, or politically partisan – to bite the hand of the Congress and public who feed us.

Now of course the national need for science and innovation doesn’t end with the budget. Immigration policy, STEM education, energy, hazards, and environmental policy, the need to refurbish U.S. critical infrastructure, even free trade and more all hold the potential for fostering science and its application if done well and inhibit progress if mishandled. The use of science in decision making with respect to climate change, genetically modified organisms, vaccinations, and much more could stand improvement. So the conversation isn’t over; the listening and persuading isn’t done. But the support for science budgets signals bipartisan willingness to engage these other issues in the science context.

We ought to welcome and seize that opportunity. In practice, good will reigns. Congress showed up for work in the science vineyard. The March for Science optimally would reflect a similar positive, non-partisan note on our part.

To see the importance of this, reflect on the contrast with another issue, and with another march: gun control. With children, singly or in groups, losing their lives to guns every day, there’s real reason for grave concern. Hence the outpouring of protest in last weekend’s March for Our Lives.

We might all do well to reflect on both Marches – their similarities and differences  – in preparing for April 14. In the meantime, enjoy and celebrate Passover/Easter, however you may observe it.


[1] Not familiar with this publication? You might want to be. Crisp, insightful, timely reporting on issues and events that matter to physical scientists across a broad spectrum. One of many benefits AIP provides its member societies, their members, and the world.

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