Co-chairs Neal Lane and Norman Augustine listen to Bart Gordon (at podium) discuss new report.

Co-chairs Neal Lane (left) and Norman Augustine (right) listen to Bart Gordon (at podium) discuss new report.

Tony Brown/imijphoto.com

ANALYSIS: Can scientists put a face on basic research?

When academics argue for more U.S. government spending on basic research, they usually haul out statistics that demonstrate how research has played an outsized role in spurring economic development. Those numbers may appeal to other scholars, but to date that approach hasn’t been particularly effective in winning over Washington policymakers. Bart Gordon prefers the Peyton index.

“There are two ways we can compete with the rest of the world,” explains Gordon, the former chair of the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. “If we compete on wages, which are less than $2 a day for half the people in the world, the standard of living for my 13-year-old daughter’s generation will be dramatically reduced. Or we can invest in research and innovation.”

Gordon made the reference to his daughter, Peyton, at a media briefing this week on a new report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. It recommends a huge increase in federal spending as well as changes to the U.S. research enterprise that will make it more efficient. The title, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream, is meant to highlight the link between research and the country’s future prosperity. But the optics of the event were at odds with that forward-looking message.

At 65, Gordon was the most youthful of the seven people—all white males, to boot—to appear on the program. And while they all talked about a brighter future for the country, their physical appearance conveyed another message, namely, that America’s best days may be behind her. The homogeneous demographics also seemed out of place for a report that argues for a more diverse scientific workforce.

Jonathan Fanton, the academy’s new president, admitted after the event that he was concerned about the age and lack of diversity of those delivering the report’s message. “I realize how it looks,” said the 70-year-old historian. “It’s something we need to address.” 

The optics also interfere with another of the report’s key points: that research is part of the fabric of society and that scientists can come from all walks of life. “The public still thinks of research as something that’s done by an old man in a white coat working alone in some laboratory,” says Norman Augustine, an engineer and former CEO of Lockheed Martin who, at 79, co-chaired the committee along with the 76-year-old Neal Lane, a former presidential science adviser and physics professor at Rice University. “We need to erase that image and replace it with the idea that scientists can come from all walks of life.”

The more that research is seen as separate from the everyday needs of society, Augustine says, the harder it will be to win political support for the increased federal investment that the report recommends. “You can’t take for granted that people think [more research] is the right thing to do,” Gordon says. “You have to put a face on it.”

For nearly a decade, Peyton has been that face. She was only 4 years old when Gordon joined three lawmakers from both parties in asking the U.S. National Academies to describe the 10 most important steps the federal government should take to strengthen U.S. science. Its answer, in a report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm by a panel that Augustine chaired, emphasized the importance of research and science education.

Gordon cited his daughter repeatedly in public events touting the report’s findings, implying that her future well-being rested in the hands of U.S. policymakers. Many of the report’s recommendations were embodied in the America COMPETES Act, a bill that breezed through Gordon’s science committee in 2007. Despite significant Republican opposition, he shepherded through a 3-year extension in 2010.

It was a crowning achievement for Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who retired from Congress in 2010 after 26 years and is now a lobbyist at the Washington, D.C., law firm of K&L Gates. But a lot has changed since then. “I don’t candidly expect Congress to stand up and salute this report,” he told the audience at Tuesday’s event, adding that it’s not just because the Republicans now control the House.

“There are a lot of members who believe there is no role for the federal government in investing in R&D,” Gordon noted. “If there’s a profit to be made, they say, then the private sector will pursue it. Others may favor just a little bit of basic research. Then there are a lot of our compatriots, who believe that research is important. But they say there are other, more pressing priorities, like feeding children.”

Given that range in attitudes, Gordon thinks the community’s best bet is not to try to win over individual legislators but rather to build a national constituency for the idea. “I hope you can find some champions, and then use the committee process to flesh out these ideas,” he says. “But to make big changes, it takes a national referendum. And presidential elections are national referendums.”

“Our challenge is to take the specifics, add others to them, percolate them through all the [scientific and professional] organizations, and then get involved in the presidential election. … If that happens, then I think you’ll see Congress start to move.”

So the question comes down to: Can the community make it happen before Peyton graduates from college?