Have you heard the latest attacks being made on peer-reviewed science? Whether it's criticisms from well-respected interest groups or fringe elements with very specific social agendas, lately it seems that everywhere you turn the peer-review process in agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health is being questioned.
As groups grapple over a shrinking pile of federal dollars, once-sacred areas of federal investment, including basic biomedical research, have become political fodder for both sides of the aisle. Your public affairs staff here at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology headquarters has been working diligently to dispel and debunk rumors, innuendo and out-and-out lies by conducting more than 40 meetings with members of the U.S. House of Representatives since the summer began. But we need your help.
Here are some things you can do to help take the politics out of science.
Talk about your research. Whether it's in line at the grocery store, sitting at a ballgame, or even at the bake sale after church on Sunday, strike up conversations and talk about your science. Did you know that one in four Americans cannot name a scientist? And half of Americans, when asked to name a scientist, only could name Albert Einstein. Surely, Einstein did a great deal to advance science, but with 12,000 members in the ASBMB alone, our neighbors should know scientists.
I'm not asking you to discuss post-translational modification or cell-signaling cascades. I'm suggesting you get comfortable talking about the potential outcomes of your research. Will it help scientists understand molecular mechanisms that may one day lead to cures for diseases? Will it reduce the occurrences of birth defects or make a terminal disease a chronic one? Help the public know that science is both well intentioned and promising so that when criticisms are made in the public sphere, our family members, friends and neighbors will be willing to defend the importance of research.
Get involved politically. No. I'm not asking you to become a fat-cat political donor. And I'm not asking you to rack up frequent-flier miles by spending every unscheduled minute you have roaming the halls of the Capitol. (That's my job!) I'm asking you to find out who represents you in Congress and to call, write or email that representative when an issue comes to your attention. Politicians are not always quite as narcissistic as we think, and they need to hear from the people they represent. If you hear about unfair critiques of the research enterprise in general or the peer-review process specifically, take a minute to set the record straight by making a phone call. Don't know whom to call or what to say? Contact the ASBMB public affairs office, and we'll provide you all the information, encouragement and support you need.
What do elected people want to know about? Probably not DNA methylation. But do talk about what your research could yield. Talk about the number of people employed in your lab, department, university or company. Talk about how you use your grant funds strategically and efficiently. Talk about how many lives one day may be saved if the research leads to cures.
Work with the ASBMB public affairs staff. The public affairs team is both scientifically aware (thanks to the science-policy fellows and the 15-member Public Affairs Advisory Committee) and politically astute. We meet with members of Congress and the administration and interact with colleagues at partnering organizations and societies. One thing we're not is everywhere. If you see an example of science being politicized, send us an email or call. If you're interested in hosting a lab tour for your elected representatives, we'd be happy to help with that as well. If you want to write a letter to the editor of your local paper, we'll help you all the way through the process from editing to getting it placed for publication.
As Congress battles over funding levels and proposes massive cuts to everything from defense to social programs, we will continue to see the politicization of science. The best – and, frankly, the only – way to preempt or thwart these attacks is to put up a strong defense. You, with your years of experience and understanding of the scientific enterprise, provide us in Washington with the best ammunition to keep politics out of the laboratory.