Missouri Lawmakers and Science
A DISCUSSION OFHow Missouri’s Legislators Got Their “Science Notes”
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In “How Missouri’s Legislators Got Their ‘Science Notes’” (Issues, Fall 2022), Brittany N. Whitley and Rachel K. Owen examine the value and challenges of bringing scientific information into the vast array of decisions that state legislators must make each year. With over 2,000 bills considered by the Missouri General Assembly annually, so many of them impact the daily lives of people across the state, changing how they connect, work, learn, and live. And eventually, many of these seemingly “local” decisions add up to national impacts.
We often hear concerns that people do not care about science or do not trust experts. However, experts often do not show up in ways that center the user’s actual problem, respect the context and complexity of the decision being made, and provide the scientific information in a way that can be valued and understood across backgrounds and party lines. Whitley and Owen provide a compelling approach for addressing these challenges.
There is an additional underlying challenge I would like to bring to this discussion, one that funders do not like to support or sustain. Few groups have the breadth of expertise to understand the landscape of emerging scientific information, aggregate that learning into knowledge, and translate that knowledge into useful inputs for decisions.
There is the fundamental need for trusted translators in our society.
If we want the funding the United States pours into science—over $40 billion of federal funding for basic research annually—to lead to real-world solutions and to impact how policy leaders make decisions, it will be necessary to provide those leaders with information in ways they can hear, understand, and trust.
The scale of the challenge is often glossed over. Looking at just the Scopus database, curated by independent subject matter experts, we see that the overall scientific literature as characterized by the National Science Foundation is growing at almost 4% each year, with approximately 1.8 million publications in 2008 and growing to 2.6 million in 2018. This gives us roughly 20 million articles in just a 10-year period from Scopus alone, providing new information that is supposed to be building on itself. But the articles are often laden with jargon, highly academic, and focused on other experts in the field. They also tend to highlight novelty instead of a road map for how to actually use the information and aggregate it into knowledge.
Who is supposed to aggregate knowledge from those tens of millions of papers over time? This is a daunting task for an expert; it is an unreasonable if not impossible expectation for legislative staff with little support. That funders of all types—federal, state, philanthropic, and industrial—will pour billions of dollars into science, but far fewer dollars into sustained efforts to make science results useful, is a fundamental flaw in our system.
I applaud the progress being made by the Missouri Science & Technology (MOST) Policy Initiative, as the authors document, along with the achievements of other state-level science programs in New Jersey, California, and Idaho, among others. But if we believe that evidence-based decisions are critical to solving society’s most pressing problems, we must rethink how we support and sustain those organizations actually doing the work.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research
As a Missourian, I applaud the efforts of the visionary founders and the savvy of the current leadership of the Missouri Science & Technology (MOST) Policy Initiative and their contributions to sound science-based policy and legislation in the state. As Brittany N. Whitley and Rachel K. Owen describe, in a truly short time and in the context of a part-time legislature (never mind the restrictions of a global pandemic), the MOST fellows have already demonstrated remarkable effectiveness and have garnered the respect and appreciative of our state lawmakers.
I have always hoped that the highly successful model of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Technology Fellows program, which has so successfully helped integrate scientific knowledge into the work of the federal government, would be, in the true spirit of federalism, translated into state houses and local governments. MOST is among a small number of state-based programs demonstrating the effectiveness of such translation. Whitley and Owen provide an excellent historical record of the importance of having sources of solid, nonpartisan scientific knowledge informing the many decisions state governments make that can impact, for example, the health of their citizens, the future of their environmental resources, the strength of their economies, and the quality of their educational systems.
The piloting of state initiatives would not have been possible without the support of private funders. Investment by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was integral to the launching of several state programs, and in Missouri, the James S. McDonnell Foundation contributed significantly to launching MOST and has recently renewed its support. So, in what is otherwise a positive article, I was surprised to read the negative slant of the discussion concerning the role of private funders.
I am sympathetic to the plight of programs, such as MOST, whose fellows are engaging in novel undertakings requiring both the building of trust relationships and the time to develop a record of accomplishment. However, it is well known that private funders typically see themselves as the source of “start-up” funding and not a source of long-term sustaining support. Philanthropy is a source of social venture capital—with the return on investment measured in terms of contribution to the common good. For philanthropy to continue as a source of venture funds, it has to carefully evaluate the duration of the commitment it can make to any one beneficiary. While I am certain MOST will continually garner support from private funders, it is likely that the identities of the donors will change as the organization’s maturation changes its needs. It is also likely that the leadership of MOST will continue to grow more skilled at communicating its accomplishments and requesting the necessary resources to continue its essential work.
I fervently hope that MOST will garner long-term and sustainable support from the constituency it serves so well, and that the state of Missouri and its citizens will recognize the value that MOST fellows provide to informed governance by appropriating funds to the program.
Susan M. Fitzpatrick
James S. McDonnell Foundation