Why colleges and universities should pay attention to the March for Science

On Saturday, tens of thousands of scientists and science advocates took to the streets in more than 600 cities to voice their support for research, facts, and science education.

The March for Science—which began as a social media campaign—was not intended as a protest of the current administration. Rather, it was a "positive case for science," says Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The movement did, however, follow President Trump's budget plan for 2017—which proposed funding cuts to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

And those funding cuts could affect universities.

Funding for the NIH already fails to keep up with rates of inflation and has essentially remained flat since 2008. Further funding cuts to the NIH would make it even more difficult for the institution to award grants to researchers at universities.

Steven Hanes, a professor at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, identifies three ways the cuts could affect colleges:

Higher researcher turnover: Without research grants, universities are frequently forced to lay off researchers. Hanes explains how he has been unable to train any new graduate students for several years now, since he is instead always focused on training new sets of researchers when current researchers leave. This affects the quality of graduate-level education, Hanes says.

Faculty quality: Hanes explains how without research grants, faculty hiring decisions have to prioritize those who already have their own funding over any other factors.

Halted projects: Finally, cuts to the NIH would mean no new grants, and in turn, no new progress on current projects that are in need of grant renewal. These projects would have to effectively come to a halt.

When research universities face funding shortfalls, communication is key

In addition to federal funding concerns, higher ed could also be affected by another catalyst behind the March for Science: anti-science legislation.

According to the Washington Post, nine legislative efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution or climate change are already underway this year—and they're further convoluting the already complex academic freedom debate.

Most of the legislation aims to allow educators to give equal weight to skeptics' arguments against climate change and evolution as they do to scientific evidence. Lawmakers have worded most of these bills as "academic freedom" bills.

Writing for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss argues that these bills "really are efforts to present foundational science as controversial."

Learn how research leaders can secure the future of their research enterprise

Not only would this type of legislation have sweeping effects on biology and environmental studies curricula, but it would also raise questions about how to reconcile science education as a whole with differing interpretations of academic freedom (Barclay, Vox, 4/23; Davenport/Thrush, New York Times, 3/15; Kreighbaum, Inside Higher Ed, 4/24; Strauss, Washington Post, 4/22).

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