Legislators need to fund science | Guest Column

By Thomas O. Baldwin

Members of Congress return to Washington, D.C., soon — let’s send them back with a clear message: funding for scientific research really matters.

The House of Representatives passed a spending bill in July that supports a healthy increase for National Institutes of Health funding – in keeping with similar NIH funding increases over the last two years. I hope senators will take similar action when they return from summer recess.

However, there’s a complicating factor. The Budget Control Act of 2011 places strict caps on Congressional spending.

So even if Congress votes to increase research funding, they cannot unless the spending caps are raised.

Congress knows this dilemma well and has raised spending caps twice before.

Please join me in strongly urging them to agree once again to a bipartisan deal to raise the fiscal year 2018 spending caps when they reconvene after Labor Day. It is essential that they do so to maintain the momentum and excellent science resulting from the healthy budget increases of the past two years.

While the importance of federal funding of research is obvious for major research centers such as Seattle, which receives almost $1 billion per year in research finding, the San Juan Islands do pretty well, too.

This year, $3,256,307 comes from the National Science Foundation, $455,151 from the National Institutes of Health, and $554,548 from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Congressional District 2, the district that includes the San Juan Islands. And most of that money goes to researchers at the Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Friday Harbor Laboratories, the marine research station of the University of Washington, is internationally recognized for excellence in both teaching and research. In 2008, Osamu Shimomura received the Nobel Prize for research done at the Friday Harbor Labs between 1961 and 1988 — research that led to the discovery of the green fluorescent protein. This protein, from jellyfish native to our waters, has become a vital research tool allowing scientists to visualize the inner workings of living cells. Today, Friday Harbor Labs faculty and students are working on numerous projects that will again lead to major discoveries.

While I am now retired and no longer competing for research dollars, my sense of civic duty compels me to argue for my colleagues who continue to work on the major scientific challenges of the day. It is critical that these scientists have stability in their funding. Otherwise, progress will be slowed, young scientists will see no future in basic research, and the research engine of the United States — the prime driver of the U.S. economy — will falter.

Further complicating matters for research funding, Congress will almost certainly have to pass a short-term “continuing resolution” (or CR) late in the summer to keep the government funded past September 30.

But should the CR last more than a few months, it will lead to the withholding of research funds and the freezing of new projects.

Rather than passing a long-term CR, a better approach is to raise the spending caps, which would allow Congress to pass an omnibus appropriations bill later in the fall.

Congress should raise the spending caps to allow for real funding increases for NIH and NSF. Scientific progress depends on it.

Baldwin is a professor emeritus and is the former dean of science at the University of California, Riverside.

He is also the president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

He resides full time on Orcas Island.