While Ali is braving the wilds of the Serengeti, I’m braving the wilds of Washington D.C. You know — the herds of tourists, the temperamental and unpredictable congressional staff, the roaring protesters. I work right downtown on the National Mall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; I’m doing a fellowship here. And most days, I find shelter from the D.C. wildlife up in my office in the east wing.
But for the next couple days, I’m donning my
pith helmet business clothes, hopping into my Land Rover onto the metro, and heading over to the kopjes Capitol Hill. I’m going to be lobbying.
The Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) holds an annual Congressional Visits Day, inviting scientists to come talk to congresspeople about the importance of federally funding biological research. Today is a training day, so that people like me can get clued-in to how the federal budget works and how to communicate with politicians. (My guess is that it’s not a good idea to spout off lots of numbers and use a lot of jargon.) Then tomorrow, we’ll be put in small groups and have meetings all day long with the staff of various senators and representatives.
I’m participating in the Congressional Visits Day in part because I’m always curious about how things work, and the opportunity to learn more about how money gets from the coffers of the Treasury into the hands of the scientist on the
street savanna is a draw. But I’m also participating because federal funding for the sciences is in trouble. It has been stagnant for the past decades and is now declining thanks to the Sequester.
Over the next half-century (which I hope to experience), I see two major threats to our physical and financial well-being as a people. The first is the disruption of agriculture due to unavoidable factors like climate change and the introduction of invasive species. The second is the emergence and spread of zoonotic disease facilitated by unavoidable globalization. It is critical to understand the science surrounding these issues if we want to be able to adequately prepare for them, and the science to understand is fundamentally biological.
So I’m leaving the quiet sanctuary of my office to head out and
study talk to the lions policy makers.
Even if you live outside the U.S., it’s been hard to miss the arrival of the dreaded sequester. However, the impact of sequestration on science research doesn’t get a lot of attention in the general din. The U.S. government funds almost all of the nation’s basic science research, which means science research that doesn’t have an immediate application like creating a new medicine or figuring out how to grow crops to withstand drought.
Much of ecology research is basic. In Snapshot Serengeti, we’re interested in learning how a large assemblage of animals coexist and use the landscape. The results will not have an immediate impact on how the Serengeti is managed, but we hope it will help inform conservation management decisions down the line.
Most of the nation’s basic research – and much applied research – is being cut by approximately 8%. Now, science funding hasn’t been doing all that well over the past couple decades anyway. And now things are getting worse. Snapshot Serengeti and its parent organization, the Lion Research Center, are mainly funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which announced recently that it will award 1,000 fewer grants this year than anticipated.
You may remember that in January, we were working hard on a grant proposal to keep our cameras rolling past the end of 2012. The way the process works is that each proposal gets evaluated on whether it is good, well-planned, and worthwhile science and either gets recommended for funding or rejected. To give you an idea, in our division of the NSF, 16% of proposals got recommended for funding last year.
But it doesn’t end there. Each year the NSF gets many more good, well-planned, and worthwhile proposals than it can fund. So it ranks them. And then it starts funding them, starting at the top and moving down the list, until it runs out of money. Of the recommended proposals, NSF expected to be able to fund just the top 22% of them this year.
And with sequestration, that pot of available money just got even smaller.
What that means for our proposal isn’t clear yet. If the sequester sticks, then we will be competing for a smaller pot of next year’s NSF money. And even if it doesn’t, we’ll be in tighter competition with all those really good proposals from this year that just missed out on getting funded. In either case, the sequester is bad news for Snapshot Serengeti.