At the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in December, National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt offered advice to a geosciences community she said is “under siege,” called on scientists to embrace “convergence research,” and directly addressed concerns about the Trump transition.
Last month, National Academy of Sciences (NAS) President Marcia McNutt, a renowned geophysicist with a long career in science and government service, spoke to members of the earth sciences community about the increasingly challenging political environment in Washington and an uncertain and sometimes hostile federal funding landscape. In a keynote address at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting, McNutt observed that the geosciences are under attack on multiple fronts at a time when they are needed more than ever to confront the “unprecedented challenges” of the twenty-first century.
To counter these attacks and meet society’s growing needs, geoscientists must become more “solutions-oriented,” argued McNutt. She offered a specific path, calling for the field to adopt a “convergence research” model, which she defined as “the integration of engineering, physical sciences, computation, and life sciences in order to bring about profound benefits for health, energy, and environment.”
During a press conference afterwards, McNutt also described efforts that NAS is making to engage with the incoming Trump administration, saying the academy will provide advice on candidates for key scientific posts and is developing a plan for communicating climate science. She also addressed scientists’ concerns about potential breaches of scientific integrity under the new administration, urging scientists to maintain their composure and keep their eye on conducting the best science possible.
Geosciences ‘under siege’
“The geosciences have been under siege for some time now,” said McNutt at the outset of her Dec. 15 keynote speech. “We’ve seen that politically. We’ve seen that financially, in terms of threats to budgets. And we’ve seen that even in the public understanding of what we do. So the question is: what can we do about it?”
Indeed, influential members of Congress have targeted federal funding for the geosciences in recent years. Congress has moved to pare back the size of some federal climate research programs. For example, funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate research account has fallen nearly 30 percent over the last five years.
In 2015, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared at a NASA hearing that the earth sciences were not “hard science,” and other Republican members of Congress have echoed those sentiments. Meanwhile, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) sponsored legislation that would have authorized a funding cut for the National Science Foundation’s Geosciences Directorate. While that legislation has not become law, congressional appropriators have blocked the directorate’s funding growth via the annual budget process in the past.
However, in an interview with ScienceInsider last fall, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), the current chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, NSF, and NOAA, sought to reassure earth scientists. Asked about a proposal to transfer NASA’s earth science activities to another agency, he replied, “Nobody in the earth sciences community should be concerned in the least. All of us in Congress are strong supporters of keeping a close eye on planet Earth.”
McNutt points to ‘solutions-oriented’ biomedical sciences as model to emulate
By contrast, federal biomedical research has unambiguously received support. NIH is often viewed as a model for how broad-based bipartisan support can lead to positive legislative and budget outcomes in Washington. Most recently, in December, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the 21st Century Cures Act, which sets aside funds to boost biomedical research by $4.8 billion over the next ten years.
McNutt called on the geosciences community to adopt an approach employed by the biomedical sciences community, pointing to how they seek not only to diagnose human problems but also invest in solutions that save human lives:
We need to not only be able to determine what’s ailing our planet but what we can do to make it better. When Congress looks at the NIH budget, they vote for increases in the NIH budget not because the biomedical scientists are really good at diagnosing all the ills that are besetting the human condition, but because NIH offers hope for solutions to those. And that’s what we need to do too.
McNutt said one asset of the biomedical sciences is that it has embraced convergence research. She elaborated:
They do this not just in a simple, interdisciplinary way, but they do so by building institutes devoted to convergent science, and by identifying devoted funding streams to fund convergent science, and by educating students in ways of solving problems through convergent thinking.
In 2014, the NAS released its first report on convergent science, entitled “Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond.” MIT released another report in June 2016 entitled “Convergence: The Future of Health.” Notably, the report launch event included remarks from McNutt, former NAS President Ralph Cicerone, NSF Director France Córdova, and National Science Board Chair Maria Zuber, among other leaders of the national scientific community.
In her AGU keynote, McNutt called the latter report’s co-chair and MIT professor Phillip Sharp the “brainchild” of the convergence research movement, crediting him for spearheading a “third revolution” in the biomedical sciences “to bring in the other disciplines to actually find the solutions to the problems.”
She then elaborated on what convergence might look like for the geosciences:
We…have the basic paradigms to know how the earth system works, and we have a number of tools, like stable isotope systems, imaging systems, so that we can see inside the Earth, so that we can measure things on unprecedented time scales, and have proxies for a number of important processes. And now if we can move to convergence, we can bring in those other disciplines that will help us actually solve these problems to help society.
McNutt addresses concerns about science under Trump, urges calm
During the press conference that followed her keynote speech, McNutt revealed that the academy is working to advise the Trump administration on science. She noted NAS had been in contact with the Trump transition team, saying they had “been asked to suggest names for science posts for the various agencies” and had since provided recommendations. NAS does this on a confidential basis per tradition.
Asked about concerns that the next administration could violate principles of scientific integrity at the federal agencies, or even delete federal climate change datasets, McNutt replied:
There are protections in place through government data integrity and scientific integrity acts that would, if [these data suddenly disappeared,] would say, ‘Hold it. That is not allowed. This data has to come back online.’ ... It would take, in my view, an incredible coordinated move to delete all copies of…climate data. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason why, if people want to copy this data and back it up one more time, that it’s something they shouldn’t do.
She added that the NAS has a “robust communications plan” to engage Trump on climate change science, and provided some details of that plan explaining “the messenger is as important as the message.” She added, “Mr. Trump has heard from scientists many times about the message of climate change. We think now he needs to hear from non-scientists about how important climate change is.”
She also urged scientists not to succumb to their fears, saying that when scientists are “freaked out and concerned” it plays right into the hands of those who are trying to disrupt science:
The best we as scientists can do is continue to do the best science we have ever done, make sure American science remains strong, and don’t let the psychological part of this to be our own worst enemy. … If there are real issues, like violations of in-play scientific integrity policies, that would be actionable. If there are cuts to the science budget in climate change at the federal level, we can work to get private funding to step in, and already we’ve heard from a lot of foundations that want to make sure that happens. And so I think the worst thing we have to worry about right now is that psychological freaking out.
Established in 1863 by Congress and President Lincoln, the NAS is a private non-profit institution that advises the nation on issues related to science and technology. The president of NAS is elected by the members of the academy, rather than appointed by the government, and serves a six-year term. Because McNutt’s appointment commenced last summer, she could serve in the role through the end of Trump’s term.