The State of the Union(‘s) Science.

In 2019, every week brings not just its own politics but also a corresponding civics lesson. For example, in the run-up to last Tuesday’s presidential address to Congress, we weren’t just reminded that Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution provides that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” We were also reacquainted with the subtleties, such as the fact this doesn’t have to be done orally, but can be done in writing; or that when given in the Chambers of Congress, it is at the invitation of the House of Representatives, and so on.  In the 21st century, school is always in session.

Ex uno, plures! Out of one, many! Any hope of the Founders that such addresses would be free of politics has proved to be vain. For the past half century, the annual State of the Union messages have given rise to a custom – not foreseen by the Constitution – of a televised rebuttal by the loyal opposition. Nowadays, thanks to the proliferation of social media, and the fragmentation of our society, we have more than one. This time around, in addition to that provided by Stacey Abrams on behalf of the Democratic Party, we also heard from Bernie Sanders, from Xavier Becerra, and a pre-buttal (!) from Kamala Harris.

The American Geophysical Union also weighed in. Chris McEntee, the AGU executive director and CEO, put up a crisp, articulate two-minute video the next day. After listing the contributions of the geosciences to economic development, national security, etc., she noted that the State of the Union would be stronger if elected officials would commit to federal funding, end political interference, support a diverse and resilient 21st century workforce, and support the free and open exchange of science across borders.

A great list! Members of Congress definitely own some responsibility here.

But what about our own (geo)science community? Suppose we took the same list and asked whether or how we scientists might better hold up our end – do our bit to foster those same purposes. Here’s how that might look:

Recognize the (sacred) responsibility attendant on federal funding for science. Most research dollars don’t come out of the pockets of handful of political leaders, or from a faceless federal government. Instead they’re contributions from millions of Americans, most of whom earn far less than the average scientist (median research scientist salary some $72K year). Some 70 million American households (including many representing combined salaries) – 56% of the total – earn less than this figure. Most of these are under financial stress, facing competing needs to food on the table, maintain health care, and more for their families. They’re the ones bankrolling the science. We should be thanking them, expressing our gratitude audibly, in writing, clearly, and often – every chance we get. We could stand to do a better job of articulating the return – the benefit to them – not just to a small minority of those already better off – on their investment. That won’t happen without our examining with some unflinching rigor the value of our research, and who benefits – the allocation/distributive implications.

We could do more to say thanks – expressing gratitude for what has been remarkably stable funding over the years, despite the usual fluctuations around the edges, the ups and downs of the American economy, and so on. We could show by example and action (not mere lip service) that we see our work as urgent and consequential – end-use driven. In fact, the best way we can say thanks is by making ourselves useful.

We could be a bit less political ourselves. Or perhaps simply more adept, measured – balanced or diverse – in our politics. Truth be told, when science is publicly funded, and when science is applied for societal benefit, scientists immediately find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. We can’t argue that science is apolitical, and yet we’re ensnarled in controversy the moment we enter the arena. A good approach given such a reality? Listen more, speak quietly, and recognize we’re in a dialog, not a battle. Otherwise, as a financially-favored, well-educated segment of society, we risk coming across as elitist or arrogant.

We could ourselves be a much-more welcoming culture for under-represented groups. There’s been a great deal of soul-searching across our community in the past year or so, and it’s unfortunately justified. Science, particularly physical science, has largely been a white-male purview for some time. Reducing harassment, bias, abuse, exploitation and more begins with us, and we have much to do.

But the challenge goes deeper. We can’t force under-represented populations to choose careers in science. It’s a free choice they make. And many individuals from these populations understandably make that choice based in part on opportunities to create a more just and equitable society – to improve conditions in some concrete way for disenfranchised groups/communities with whom they identify. We can’t necessarily expect them to choose science over alternatives such as law, medical practice, education, community action, etc., which historically have offered clearer, more personally satisfying ways to lend a helping hand to groups or individuals in need. Science and its applications do present such potential – but we do a poor job of articulating that. Often the research connection is social benefit is at best long-term, abstract, and tenuous. We also need to do much more across science to reward researchers who make contributions through such work as opposed to peer-reviewed publications.

Free and open exchange of science across borders? Devoutly to be wished. But this turns out to be a bit above the pay grade for both scientists and U.S. federal-level elected officials, doesn’t it? Clearly the United States has done itself harm in recent years cutting off the supply of early-career scientists from foreign countries, many of whom have historically stayed in the United States, making us a more innovative people, and enriching our culture and economic prospects. But at the same time, we’re belatedly seeing efforts by other nations to use what immigration remains as a means of mining U.S. innovation in order to further their global ambitions. The United States enjoys many reasons to approach any such competition for ideas and values with confidence; and yet some caution seems deserved.

Which brings up two issues that weren’t on the AGU list, and yet would seem to merit attention from both federal elected officials and from geoscientists alike. Both are at their heart state-and-local issues as well. They are salient aspects of the state of the Union.

The state of K-12 public-school STEM education. As a nation of fifty states, we’re doing a terrible job of helping school kids see the attraction and power of, and master, the sciences, mathematics, and engineering – especially when it comes to the geosciences and social sciences, both of which are under-represented in the public schools. Were we to do a better job here, we would remain keenly interested in immigration to round out our 21st-century job force – but not in desperate need of it.

Critical infrastructure. Elected federal officials and scientists mention this, but pay it insufficient attention. The United States faces an infrastructure bill of a few trillion dollars. That seems daunting. But behind the challenge lies opportunity. Over the next few decades, the world’s nations will invest the order of $100T in food, water, and energy infrastructure. The key to return on that investment is good environmental intelligence – a fundamental understanding of the geosciences and their implications.

By mastering the geosciences and engineering necessary to meet our domestic infrastructure needs, U.S. government and industry can lay the groundwork needed to capture a significant fraction of this global market. We can maintain standing as a good neighbor and at the same time advance geopolitical stability and security.

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2 Responses to The State of the Union(‘s) Science.

  1. Bill:-

    Excellent, as always. I wrote the following seven years ago. Still true as your post points out.

    “This is a critical problem compounded by our federal deficit, and the very real lack of resources being faced by many of our cities, counties and states.

    However, the national dialogue we need about our infrastructure should not be entirely doom and gloom. The Chinese ideogram for “crisis” is made up of two characters – “danger” and “opportunity.” An important facet of resilience is finding the opportunity in a crisis. When we talk about the state of our infrastructure we tend to stress the dangers – especially when talking to politicians. But it is clear – we will eventually repair and rebuild our aging infrastructure. We may do it in a deliberate and planned manner, or in response to more incidents like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. In other words, on either a “pay me now,” or a “pay me [more] later” basis.

    But if we proceed wisely in repairing and rebuilding our infrastructure, I see real economic development opportunities that are too often overlooked. Here in the US, by using better materials, building in better locations, using sensors to allow us to know the conditional status of our infrastructure at almost any point in time, we can again make our infrastructure a competitive advantage for American business. Investments like these will reduce maintenance costs, provide greater safety, and result in an extended life for what we rebuild.

    The use of these same new technologies can also spark real economic growth – selling both the technologies and our know-how to foreign buyers. The infrastructure in much of the newer developed world (esp. what Thomas Barnett calls the “new core” – Brazil, India…) though younger than ours – is built on the American model, with American ideas. If we can push to make good investments and solve our own problems soon, the solutions we develop will provide economic opportunities for us, when countries in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere begin to face the same challenges we are now. American firms can once more be in the forefront of rebuilding the infrastructure of the world.

    Certainly we should stress the dangers when talking about our infrastructure crisis. However, we should also stress the opportunities inherent in dealing with those dangers. We should not allow our current fiscal mess to prevent us from investing in ourselves in ways that can provide a huge return on that investment.”

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