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Congressional Visits: A Boost to ASA Science Policy

1 October 2009 1,368 views No Comment
This column is written to inform ASA members about what the ASA is doing to promote the inclusion of statistics in policymaking and the funding of statistics research. To suggest science policy topics for the ASA to address, contact ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson at pierson@amstat.org.

Pierson-color copySteve Pierson earned his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota. He spent eight years in the physics department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later became head of government relations at the American Physical Society.

Sixty ASA members recently took President Sally Morton’s advice to heed the call to action set forth by the Obama Administration when they spent the last day of JSM on the Hill advocating for statistical literacy and funding. After two briefing sessions, the enthusiastic group split into roughly 20 teams to meet with staff in almost 120 congressional offices and, in several instances, actual members of Congress. Participants reported that their audiences were receptive to the ASA’s message, thereby opening the door for the ASA to realize its advocacy requests through sustained follow-up. Both the day of visits and the fact that JSM was held in Washington, DC, this year were a boost to the ASA’s science policy efforts.

The ‘Asks’

While the group made specific requests—“asks” in Hill jargon—during their meetings, the goals for the visits were to introduce the ASA, educate staffers about what statisticians do, and initiate relationships with congressional offices. The visits also were part of a broader ASA science policy campaign to promote statistics in policymaking and advocate the specific issues of statistical literacy and basic research funding.

The statistical literacy ask was for help promoting statistical literacy in upcoming education legislation, whether it be the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (likely to revert to its previous name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)), the Ehlers-Dodd Bill to promote voluntary national standards (Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids (SPEAK) Act (H.R. 2790 and S.1231)), or another legislative vehicle. ASA staff members have drafted committee report language that will work for either bill and have specific suggestions for ESEA language. Staffers who thought their bosses might be particularly supportive were encouraged (and will continue to be encouraged) to call ASA staff members for either the House Committee on Education and Labor or the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) to express support for promoting statistical literacy.

The funding ask consisted of the following two parts:

  • Fund the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) fiscal year 2010 (FY10) budget at the president’s request of $7.05 billion—an 8.5% increase above the FY09 level and slightly above the House request of $6.94 billion and the Senate request of $6.92 billion
  • Fund the National Institutes of Health (NIH) FY10 budget request of $31.2 billion, a 4% increase above the FY09 level. The $31.2 billion is above the 1.5% increase requested by the president and approved by the Senate. The House approved a 3.1% increase for NIH in FY10.

The 4% requested increase for NIH is based on the average value over the last five years of the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index (BRDPI), which is considered a better measure of inflation for research costs and tends to run a couple percentage points above the Consumer Price Index.

The two asks—approved by the ASA Executive Committee with input from the Board of Directors, the Scientific and Public Affairs Advisory Committee, the 60 participants, and me—were linked as part of a competitiveness theme, echoing the National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future”: A more statistically literate population would be a more competitive work force, and basic research helps ensure a vital scientific enterprise.

A New York Times story published on the day of the visits, titled “For Today’s Graduates, One Word: Statistics,” was serendipitous for the meetings. In some cases, senators and staffers had already seen the article, which the participants included in their packets to be left with each office. The packets, developed to help the participants deliver their messages, also included a one-page document highlighting the asks, five “Statistical Significance” pieces, NSF and NIH funding data by institution for the congressional member’s state, and NSF and NIH time-series funding charts. (All these materials are available here.)

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