Balanced Priorities

Working together may be the best solution to reconcile the sometimes tense relationship between government policy and scientific research.
01 April 2007
Tim Holt
The world is such a complex environment with a multitude of interconnections, that there can be few research scientists who are able to ignore the effects of government policy on their research. Possibly those who are working in areas such as quantum gravity may be able to claim a certain amount of detachment, but even here their funding via a "fundamental science" stream is subject to political whims.
Robert Boege, the SPIE Washington, DC, representative agrees, "while the general plight of science funding is problematic, it remains under-funded when compared to need; in the U.S., both Congress and the administration are making significant moves to improve the situation. Congress reached a bipartisan consensus on increasing funding for the physical sciences and engineering, and the administration re-introduced its American Competitiveness Initiative to inject significant funding into three key agencies: the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards & Technology."
There can be no doubt that scientists and policy makers have to communicate and understand each other's aims, objectives, and constraints in order for science to remain relevant to the needs and demands of the public.
"Putting a human face on science spending for R&D has been daunting, particularly for adequate funding for the physical sciences and engineering," says Boege.
"It's more difficult for people to understand the role of these disciplines in their daily lives when compared to the health-related life sciences. Elected officials and their staffs need to understand how funding various types of scientific research can ultimately result in quality jobs, improved innovation and competitiveness, a higher standard of living, enhanced security, and broader opportunities for succeeding generations."
The relationship between scientists and policy makers must be circular with an embedded feedback loop.
Policy makers gather information from several sources: from scientists about what might be possible; from society about what is required; from other specialists across different markets, e.g., medical, military, industry; and from what is going on elsewhere in the world.
Policy is then proposed in terms of priorities and weightings for the R&D agenda. Funds are allocated based on these priorities and weightings. If scientists aren't aware of changes in emphasis by the policy makers, they can find their research leading down a funding blind alley.
One example of changing policy in the United Kingdom has been the recent emphasis by government on knowledge transfer (KT). Previously, universities specialized in teaching and research. Where that research went after the universities had finished with it was not part of the university's concern, as there were insufficient funds to attract their attention into this space. The analogy was that the research outcomes were "thrown over a wall" for someone else to pick up?typically institutions and companies not based in the UK.
As government started to get concerned about the disappearance of the D from R&D in the UK and the subsequent loss of production capability, they started to place more emphasis on KT?and emphasis means money.
A third funding stream for universities opened up (to join the teaching and research streams), specifically to fund KT. Soon universities weren't just undertaking teaching and research, they were doing "knowledge creation" and "knowledge transfer."
While there will always be a need for the very fundamental research (e.g. quantum gravity again), there is no doubt that government in the UK has its sights firmly set on funding research whose outcomes benefit the UK economy. Large parts of the scientific community in the UK have taken note of this and are shifting their research emphasis accordingly.
Eleanore Edson, the SPIE/OSA Congressional Fellow who is working, as a staffer in Senator Hillary Clinton's office, says that communication is a fundamental part of the process.
"I was keenly interested in learning why and how policy makers either dismiss or heed scientific findings," says Edson. "Although politics has a powerful influence in the legislative process, scientists should never underestimate the importance of making personal visits to representatives to advocate for greater attention to an issue or increased research funding. As a trained scientist who now meets with hundreds of stakeholders a year, I know that a scientist must be prepared to deliver a clear and succinct explanation of an issue, a cogent argument for its importance, be able to explain how it will affect the lawmaker's district and be aware of relevant legislation."
In my view, it is vital that scientists and policy makers have an extremely close interaction. Scientists have to ensure that the policy makers have sufficient facts to make sensible policy and to really understand the implications of the resulting policy on their research so that they can move their research in a direction that meets the policy. Policy makers must ensure that they listen to the scientists and create a sensible balance of policy priorities which keeps scientists on their side.
In the words of Stephen Hawking from the track by Pink Floyd, we have to "Keep Talking."

Stay Informed on Policy
Regular policy updates, tools, resources, and sample letters on key issues are available in the new policy section of the SPIE website.
According to Ralph James of Brookhaven National Lab. (Brookhaven, NY) and the chair of the SPIE Engineering, Science and Technology Policy Committee, the groups focus for 2007 will include:
funding for energy R&D, health care, security and defense, space sciences and technology, and the translation of basic research into applications;science, technology, engineering, and math education; andincreased communication with government about science and technology.
Keep abreast of the latest developments in science policy by visiting the policy section on the SPIE website at

Keep Talking at CVD
Washington, DC, is about to get a lot more high tech. More than 300 scientists, engineers, researchers, educators, and technology executives will gather on 1-2 May for the annual event Congressional Visits Day (CVD) to raise visibility and support for science, engineering, and technology.
If you are interested in joining the SPIE team for this event, please contact us at Presentations by DC insiders will educate you and prepare you for office visits with your Representatives on Capitol Hill.
Details are on the web at

First-Hand Experience
If you want to become more involved in U.S. policy concerning science and technology, consider the SPIE/OSA Congressional Fellowship program.
Congressional Fellows spend one year working in the office of a U.S. Senator, Representative, or with a Congressional Committee to gain first-hand knowledge of congressional operations and to contribute to the policymaking process.
Additional information about the fellowship is available at

Tim Holt

Tim Holt is chief executive at the University of Strathclyde's Institute of Photonics/Wolfson Center in Strathclyde, Scotland, UK. He is also a member of the SPIE Engineering, Science and Technology Policy Committee.

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