Science

Here's Why the Government Should Fund "Gee Whiz" Science

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As a scientist, sometimes people ask me: Why should the government fund astronomy? Why should the government drive cars on Mars, image exploding stars or fly a satellite into the sun’s atmosphere?

This is my standard answer: Because discovering how water forms on Mars or how stars produce heavy elements leads to new technology. And that technology creates industries, products, and jobs.

But here’s my real answer: Because it inspires people. As a solar physicist, I spend every day studying the sun. But during the solar eclipse last year, 200 million people—more than half of the U.S. population—went out of their way to look at the sun. Few events bring so many people together with such enthusiasm.

I want to make sure that we keep inspiring people to look up. That’s why I joined 14 other astronomers from the American Astronomical Society last week for a crash course on science policy and meetings with congressional representatives on Capitol Hill.

This is the most important thing I learned: If you contact your Congressional representative and request a meeting, they likely will say yes. And this meeting could really make a difference. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, in-person constituent visits influence undecided members of Congress more than any other engagement tactic. They’re more effective than calling, e-mailing, or attending a town hall.

My colleagues and I used these meetings to express enthusiasm, concern and support for space science. We split into small groups—mine composed of an undergraduate student from Arizona, a graduate student from Colorado, and myself—and trekked back and forth between the House and Senate buildings to attend eight 30-minute meetings with the staff of our congressional representatives. We told our personal stories and encouraged our representatives to pursue a broad scientific portfolio.

I learned that most congressional staffers watched last year’s solar eclipse right from Capitol Hill, through NASA eclipse glasses. I relayed my story of waiting for totality from the dry, cloudless eastern Oregon desert (while someone played “The Final Countdown” on a trumpet). A few miles away from me, students live-streamed the eclipse from a balloon they launched into the stratosphere. But, I asked, how do you keep scientists motivated to study such things? There are many possible answers, but I identified two: resources and equality.

I talked with the staff of my congressional representatives about federal research grants, which support many scientists. Many of my colleagues feel burned out from applying for grant after grant with success rates less than 15 percent. And young scientists bear a disproportionate amount of this burden. A study of NSF, NIH and NASA grant proposals between 2009 and 2012 by Ted von Hippel and Courtney von Hippel showed that new scientists experience a 7 percent success rate, whereas established ones succeed nearly 50 percent of the time. We discussed the need for adequate resources in order to retain young scientists in astronomy.

I also mentioned that a large budget wouldn’t solve all our problems. Inclusion and diversity remain a huge issue in astronomy and physics. We discussed a study by Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues, which found that both male and female professors in biology, chemistry and physics view female students as less competent than an identically qualified male. These biases hurt us in the long run, because we have the greatest possible scientific productivity when we draw from the largest possible talent pool.

I thought we might face some contentious moments, but those never materialized. The staffers took notes and asked thoughtful questions. They spoke with us happily and knew a great deal about scientific research. In two of our meetings, we conversed with former scientists who now work as congressional staffers through a policy fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In addition to voicing my concerns, I also thanked my representatives for all that they’ve done to support astronomers. In particular, I’m inspired to invite my local representative, Anna Eshoo (CA-18), to visit with astronomers at Stanford University. I’m confident that she would enjoy her visit and that we could learn a lot from each other.

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