Science Policy

AAAS provided objective scientific insights, promoted an awareness that science can help drive our economy and improve quality of life, and offered professional-development opportunities for scientists and engineers.

Government Relations

AAAS Government Relations shares the wide-ranging value of the scientific enterprise with policymakers by communicating directly with Congressional representatives, offering Capitol Hill briefings, and providing evidence-based science and technology updates. It sponsors training to equip and encourage scientists and engineers to become more active in communicating and advocating for science. The group also offers authoritative, ongoing analysis of federal investments in science and engineering research and development.

AAAS Protests Climate-Science Inquiry

AAAS led a protest of an inappropriate Congressional inquiry into federal climate-science research that threatened to violate federal scientists’ academic freedom. In June, a research group from the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA) published findings in the journal Science, showing that what had previously appeared to be a 15-year slowdown in the rate of global warming early in the 21st century was likely due to incorrect estimates of surface temperatures, and that warming had continued at the same rate during that period.

The chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology sent subpoenas in October to NOAA, requesting “all documents and communications” related to the Science paper. AAAS and seven other science societies sent a letter in support of federal scientists, stating that needlessly intrusive Congressional inquiries can inhibit scientific discovery, particularly if scientists are threatened with legal action.

“Science cannot thrive when policymakers—regardless of party affiliation—use policy disagreements as a pretext to attack scientific conclusions without public evidence,” the coalition’s letter said. “We are concerned that establishing a practice of inquests directed at federal scientists … could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of government scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions.”

The letter acknowledged the importance of appropriate Congressional oversight of federally funded research, and suggested that the House committee use other established mechanisms for assessing technical information, such as advisory reports of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

AAAS also held a symposium and Congressional briefing in October to discuss advances in climate science and strategies for communicating about climate change, while marking the 50th anniversary of the first warning to a U.S. president of the threat posed by climate change.

White House

Neuroscience, Human Health, and Policy

The AAAS Neuroscience and Society series organized four public lectures and four Capitol Hill briefings on topics ranging from the treatment of mental illness in people of all ages, to the complexity of chronic pain. Each of the public events, held at AAAS headquarters, drew up to 100 people.

Researchers also addressed policymakers in briefings about topics including how increased access to marijuana in states where it has been legalized is affecting teens, and how schools can improve learning for children with disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Capitol Hill neuroscience briefings were hosted in conjunction with Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pennsylvania).

The Neuroscience and Society series is supported by a grant from The Dana Foundation.

Golden Goose Awards

Created to honor odd-sounding basic research that has led to important benefits for society, the 2015 Golden Goose Awards were given to seven researchers who studied self-control strategies, how the brain interprets visual stimuli, and the distribution of people at various altitudes.

One winner, psychologist Walter Mischel, designed the “marshmallow test” in the late 1960s to see how young children can delay gratification to get a larger reward later. He found that distraction works best, and over the next 30 years, he and his colleagues followed up with some of the original subjects of the research. They found that having self-control strategies did correlate with greater academic and social success later in life, and that such strategies can be taught to improve children’s later outcomes.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) and a coalition of organizations, including AAAS, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Public- and Land-grant Universities, created the Golden Goose award in 2012. Cooper and a bipartisan group of Congressional representatives attended the September awards ceremony at the Library of Congress.

“These awards remind us that scientific breakthrough rarely follows the straight and narrow path,” said Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware), and “how important it is that we continue to support the basic research that only the federal government can sustainably fund.”

Analyzing U.S. R&D Funding Trends

The AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program has been tracking federal spending for research and development since 1976 by following Congressional debates and bills, and by parsing the President’s yearly budget proposals. There has been much to follow of late, as spending caps on discretionary spending created by the Budget Control Act of 2011 allowed for only a 0.2% increase in spending, before factoring in inflation.

The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s laboratories did have small budget increases in 2015, but the National Institutes of Health’s overall budget continued a decade-long decline. After multiple budget adjustments, Congress eventually passed an omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2016 that added 5.2% to the discretionary spending allowance, and provided about an 8% increase in R&D spending.

Matt Hourihan, the AAAS program’s director, gave R&D budget briefings on Capitol Hill and at the association’s 40th annual Forum on Science & Technology Policy, in addition to publishing periodic analyses. He told Hill attendees that the United States remains the largest global contributor to R&D, spending more than twice as much (in dollars) as China, the next largest funder. Two-thirds of U.S. R&D spending is generated by industry, with the remainder coming from the federal government.

However, there has been “a very clear shift from west to east” in recent years, Hourihan said. China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea collectively increased their share of global R&D spending from 24% in 2000 to 36.8% in 2012. Analysts believe that China may surpass the United States in total R&D funding from all sources by 2019.

AAAS Joins Rally for Medical Research

AAAS was one of more than 300 organizations that sent researchers, physicians, and patients to speak with their Congressional representatives in support of biomedical research on 17 September. The Rally for Medical Research was an effort to reverse a decade-long decline in federal spending for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose $29.5 billion budget for 2015 was 22% lower than its 2003 peak, after adjusting for the high rate of inflation in the biomedical sciences.

People with many conditions, including cancer, influenza, Ebola, and AIDS, are relying on NIH-funded research to find a cure, said NIH Director Francis Collins during a rally reception. The NIH is the largest funder of medical research in the world.

Among rally participants appealing to Congress were graduate students who participated in the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) event, a three-day workshop that provides policy, advocacy, and communication training. Close to 80 students representing 43 institutions participated in the second annual CASE workshop.

The program was created in response to repeated requests from graduate students who were interested in science policy and advocacy. It encourages attendees to continue their involvement in science policy. Alumni have gone on to become a California Science and Technology Policy Fellow and to participate in similar programs.

Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy

AAAS and a coalition of universities and science and engineering societies are working to help researchers, science and technology professionals, and students become more involved in policy initiatives. The Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy (ESEP) website provides a list of fellowships, internships, graduate programs, trainings, degree programs, websites, publications, and more.

The ESEP program has conducted several workshops at AAAS meetings. ESEP also began a webinar series that allowed participants to ask questions and interact with experts in real time. Speakers included AAAS CEO Rush Holt (a former member of Congress), government affairs representatives for science societies, and lobbyists who described the tools they use to advocate for science policy, and how to use them most effectively.


The AAAS Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs (CSPSP) brings scientific and engineering expertise to policymakers, promotes wise investments in research, and advances scientific freedom and responsibility. Through a selective fellowship program and a prestigious annual forum, it shares insights with the federal agencies and Congressional offices where public policy is made and interpreted. CSPSP also organizes programs that promote ethical research practices, provides technical expertise on human rights issues, and encourages dialogue about science and religion.

2015 Science & Technology Policy Forum

Concern about cuts to basic research funding was the overriding message during the 40th AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy. The two-day meeting, held in Washington, D.C. in April, drew more than 400 elected officials, government and business leaders, foreign embassy staff, researchers, and educators.

Funding for basic-science research in the United States is threatened by limits on “discretionary” spending due to budget sequestration, said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in his keynote address. France Córdova, National Science Foundation director, questioned whether funding for basic research should continue to rely on the nation’s discretionary spending budget. “Our nation’s future, including our preparedness for that future, depends on innovation,” Córdova said. “Innovation in turn depends, in large part, on discovery, and discovery is fueled by basic research. This pursuit is not discretionary.”

The Forum saw the start of a new lecture series, the Gilbert S. Omenn Grand Challenges Address, intended to draw attention to the most pressing needs and goals at the intersection of science and society. Dr. Omenn, past president of AAAS, gave the 2015 address, encouraging consideration of “aspirational and inspirational” research challenges to “energize not only the scientific and engineering community, but also students, journalists, the public, and their elected representatives, to develop a sense of the possibilities, an appreciation of risks, and an urgent commitment to accelerate progress.”

Additional speakers addressed how scientists can better engage with a skeptical public, how data can be used for the public’s benefit, and how the U.S. educational system can increase the number of workers prepared to take science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs.

Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

The 2015-16 class of Science & Technology Policy Fellows includes researchers and engineers of all types, from all stages in their careers, who have one shared goal: to apply their science and technology skills to policy solutions. The program places doctoral-level scientists, or engineers with a Master’s degree, into various offices within the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of federal government and Congress for a year.

S&T Policy Fellows

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, class of 2015-16, included 280 competitively selected fellows.

“Scientists have such an important role to play in society beyond the bench,” said Sapana Vora, who served as a fellow at the State Department.

Of the 280 fellows, 163 fellows were new fellows, 99 had renewed their fellowship for a second year, and 18 were in special alumni fellowships. Thirty-one fellows served in Congress; 245 served in the executive branch among 18 agencies or departments, including overseas missions with the U.S. Agency for International Development; and four were placed with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

In August, the fellows had a chance to meet with S&T Policy Fellowship alumnus Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS. A physicist by training, Holt called his fellowship experience “life-changing,” and said that it led to his serving for 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. He told the fellows that he hopes to enlist their help in advocating for science for years to come.

Protecting Antiquities and Predicting Conflict

Sites and objects with irreplaceable cultural value often become targets during armed conflicts, both for ideological reasons and for their value to collectors. The AAAS Geospatial Technologies Project assisted groups trying to protect sites in Syria and Iraq by analyzing recent satellite images with earlier ones to document the status of the sites. Some sites, such as one in Apamea, Syria, are so covered with pits and tunnels dug by looters that they appear to have been carpet-bombed, AAAS reported.

Sometimes sites are damaged or destroyed to remove reminders of a cultural heritage that terrorists or other groups oppose, or to demoralize the local people, said Katharyn Hanson, a visiting scholar with the Geospatial Technologies Project, in a November colloquium. Hanson and AAAS contributed to the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq (SHOSI) Project, which physically protects sites from bombings, using sandbags and other methods.

The Geospatial Technologies Project also studied the use of satellite imagery to better understand and help prevent border conflicts. With a grant from the United States Institute of Peace, it aggregated and correlated large amounts of information from previous cross-border conflicts, including satellite imagery, media reporting, and eyewitness accounts, to create a retrospective geospatial analysis. That process allowed it to identify trends that could contribute to the future detection, management, and peaceful de-escalation of similar incidents.

Promoting Research Competitiveness

The AAAS Research Competitiveness Program (RCP) has worked for 20 years to build capacity for STEM systems through its work on peer-reviewed competitions, program and institutional assessment, trainings, and innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives.

In 2015, RCP finished the first phase of support for grant competitions of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Saudi Arabia. For seven years, RCP had solicited more than 15,000 reviews for about 5,000 proposals for KACST. It continues to provide review of grantee progress reports. RCP also in 2015 solicited reviews for more than 100 applications to the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund, which has awarded $4.5 million since 2014 to five universities and four companies.

Since 1996, RCP has organized expert assessments for more than $1 billion spent on science initiatives in the United States and worldwide. In 2015, the program helped states implement and sustain multi-institutional, interdisciplinary research programs, encompassing assessments of five programs funded by the National Institutes of Health (in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Oklahoma), and two programs funded by the National Science Foundation (in Maine and South Dakota).

In its work on innovation and entrepreneurship, RCP assumed leadership of the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I competition, and organized the training and judging for the 2015 Tech-I finals held at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya. RCP was also awarded funding in 2015 for three GIST Women’s Village workshops on networking for science and technology entrepreneurs, to be held in Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Mozambique in 2016.

Science for Religion Reporters

The AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program (DoSER) convened independent judges who selected eight writers and broadcasters to receive the first Science for Religion Reporters Award, given during the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting. The $2,000 awards recognize journalists whose audiences are attentive to religion and culture, and who demonstrate an interest in reporting about science.

The award-winning journalists reach a wide range of audiences, through reporting distributed by such media outlets as CBS, the Religion News Service, The Atlantic, and Sojourners, among others. The program is funded by a grant from The John Templeton Foundation, with support from AAAS.

Science for Religion Reporters

AAAS staff members Christine Scheller (far left) and Jennifer Wiseman (far right) celebrated the first eight winners of the AAAS Science for Religion Reporters Awards (L-R): Kimberly Winston, Liz Kineke, Kelsey Dallas, Renee Gadoua, Emma Green, Cathy Lynn Grossman, Patti Miller, and Catherine Woodiwiss.