Last year it seemed like everywhere we looked science seemed to be under siege. Budget gridlock threatened publicly-funded science at NASA, the vaccination debate made front-page news, and climate change science became so politically sensitive that researchers in some states were reportedly banned from even mentioning it. But if the start of this year was anything to go by, 2016 is shaping up to be the year that science fights back.
Perhaps the biggest sign of the changing times is the recent windfall of investments into science from the US Government. Take for example, the 2016 Congressional spending bill, passed in the final weeks of 2015 by a Republican-led Congress. Far from being hostile to science (as had been the case in prior years), the bill provides far more money for science than even the most optimistic thought possible.
One of the biggest winners was NASA, whose proposed budget from the House, at $19.2 billion, is the largest it's been in decades, and about $700 million more than President Obama requested. NASA has endured a steadily-shrinking budget ever since the space-race era of the late 1960’s. However, NASA’s windfall in 2016, if passed into law, would allow it to finish the James Webb Space Telescope, stay on track with missions to Mars, and accelerate future exploration into deep space with daring lander mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa within a decade.
Part of NASA’s success stems from its successful cultivation of advocates in Congress. One in particular comes in the rather unlikely form of the fiscally conservative John Culberson, who represents, of all place, Texas' 7th congressional district, a conservative seat formerly held by President George H. W. Bush.
Despite holding a commitment to cut Government spending overall, Culberson describes himself as a “zealous advocate for increasing national investment in medical and scientific research.” A regular visitor to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Culberson is Congress’s leading proponent for a mission to land on Europa - thought to be a potential location for extraterrestrial life . Culberson called the 2016 Budget “the largest vote of confidence that Congress has ever given NASA,” and a sign of a changing attitude towards investments in space research and exploration. The Europa mission would be a bold exploratory adventure, one which will truly engages the public and ensure America’s undisputed role as a world leader in space science.
Gun Violence Research
NASA is not the only agency with a new license to explore. Since 1998, the CDC has been effectively banned from researching the contentious topic of gun violence as a public health issue, and consequently, researchers and scientists have been all but left out of public policy debates.
With zero funding for research into gun violence prevention strategies, researchers had considered gun violence research a field without a future." The CDC, which once had a strong gun violence research capability, simply chose to research other less contentious topics. Now, after almost two decades without funding, there are thought to be fewer than 20 researchers in America left studying the causes of firearm violence.
To reverse the trend, President Obama took executive action, restoring the CDC’s ability to use federal funding for gun violence research and, in 2016, specifically requesting $10 million for such a purpose. The requested funding is part of an initiative called Now Is the Time, which aims to “equip Americans with needed information.”
This is welcome news for the science community, says Dr. Alice Chen, executive director of Doctors for America: "Gun violence is probably the only thing in this country that kills so many people, injures so many people, that we are not actually doing sufficient research on," she says.
The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council concluded that “significant progress” could be made in reducing gun violence in as little as three years - provided funding for the research could be found. If approved, the new $10 million in funding would put gun violence prevention back on the Public Health agenda, reframing the debate and ensuring scientists have a more prominent role in informing policy discussions.
Perhaps the biggest event on the 2016 science calendar will be the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement. Adopted last December, the Paris Agreement is still considered a ‘proposal’ - the actual signing will take place on April 22 of this year, when 196 countries are invited to officially sign on in an event that coincides with Earth Day.
Only when a threshold of countries sign on and consent to be bound by the Agreement will it actually come into effect.
The looming signing date has prompted a renewed interest in climate science, particularly the role of publicly-funded research. Senate Republicans have previously reminded us that Congress has the power of the purse and can restrict public investment in scientific research and clean energy. Whilst that is true, the Paris agreement contains hefty requirements for monitoring and reporting, and any failure by the United States to meet its submitted carbon reduction targets will be noted on a world stage.
Global public opinion has already played an important part in getting to this point. The 2016 signing of the Paris Agreement should provide strong encouragement to Congress to green-light even greater investments in renewable energy development, research into carbon fixing technologies, and successful monitoring initiatives.
After more than two decades of warning leaders to pay attention, international pressure to meet Paris commitments will mean that scientists will finally play a key role in advising United States spending policy.
All in all, science has some big events coming up in 2016, and will be firmly on the public radar this election year. Hopefully, this growing role of science in public policy decisions will mean there's less room for science denialism to flourish.