The University Record, October 9, 1995

Unique coalition presses case for science funding

By Jane R. Elgass

Did the efforts of a coalition of research universities to increase awareness of the importance of federal research funding shift congressional thinking toward the positive during budget debates this year?

While difficult to measure, Vice President for University Relations Walter Harrison thinks it helped, and along the way, those institutions also learned a bit more about the priorities of the public when it comes to national funding needs.

The U-M is one of 18 universities and one health corporation—collectively tagged The Science Coalition—drawn together earlier this year by a common goal: the need to convince members of Congress and others of the importance of continued funding of university-research.

The coalition grew out of discussions last December among the colleges and universities that have representatives in Washington, D.C., about how research universities might make a public case for research funding.

The group commissioned a national poll that was conducted by Chlopakm, Leonard, Schlecter. The institutions fully expected to find that funding of scientific research was not a high priority of the public.

They were pleasantly surprised.

“Research funding came out higher than we thought,” Harrison says. “Not as high as protecting Social Security, but higher than welfare, national defense and other national funding needs.

“People responded best to medical and other health-related research, which can have a direct impact on their lives, but were interested generally in advancing research.

“However, we also discovered that people don’t really make the connection between federal funding, research conducted at universities and the resulting impact on their lives.”

Following the poll, a more formal group was formed, with a goal of protecting the federal commitment to fund research. That group has been meeting for six months, working with Cholpak, Leonard, Schlecter and the Wechsler Group to raise public awareness of research and its benefits and to put together a coalition of groups that support research.

The results?

The group’s work stimulated articles, essays and editorials in such national newspapers as the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe.

And, a number of organizations and prominent individuals joined to support the cause, including Gov. John Engler, as evidenced in an ad that ran in Roll Call, a newspaper widely read on Capitol Hill.

One page of the two-part ad contains a list of more than 200 corporations, universities, foundations and other organizations that fund research, leading scientists and Nobel Prize-winners. The other features a letter signed by 17 governors and another signed by the chairmen or CEOs of 16 leading corporations.

The governors’ letter grew out of a talk MIT President and former U-M provost Charles Vest had with Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who was so impressed with the project that he drafted a letter endorsing the general nature of research and solicited the signatures of his colleagues.

“The governors are able to see the benefits of research to both the citizens and the economies of their states,” Harrison points out. “The letter also demonstrates that this is a non-partisan issue. Science funding does not pit liberals against conservatives. It all revolves around what’s important for the future of the country.”

Harrison notes that National Institutes of Health funding was actually increased after the dangers of decreased funding were pointed out. He notes also, however, that the Science Coalition is only one of many groups supporting scientific research.

David Morse, assistant vice president for policy planning, University of Pennsylvania, notes several important and unusual aspects of the coalition, which he hopes will be sustained.

“It is an active coalition that ranges across scientific disciplines and interests, including the physical sciences, medical sciences, environmental sciences, really across the board in a form that hasn’t existed before. It includes representatives from the academic community, voluntary health organizations, scientific societies, industry and trade associations, with lots in between.”

In addition to building a group with such diverse membership, the coalition also aimed to “accelerate media and public attention on the importance and priority of science research funding, an equally difficult task with budgets under stress,” Morse says.

And while this task “has many fathers and mothers,” Morse feels the Science Coalition contributed and amplified the level of attention.

The other important aspect of the coalition’s work, Morse believes, is the attempt to build support for science research funding at the grass roots level.

“Previously, efforts have focused on Washington, D.C. Now we’re focusing on districts and members at the local level, bringing the local benefits of Alzheimer’s and swine research to bear on the representatives.

“It has worked well so far,” Morse says. “I hope it continues in some form.”

The following institutions in addition to the U-M, are members of The Science Coalition: Columbia University, Cornell University, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of Chicago, University of Georgia, University of Illinois, University of Missouri, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas at Austin, Vanderbilt University, Washington University at St. Louis, Yale University, Partners HealthCare System Inc., Boston.