Scientists bring important expertise and contributions to government decision-making by engaging with legislative staff and making their voices heard in Congress in relation to important legislation. That has especially been the case in the CHIPS and Science Act, which National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan has called the most important U.S. science and engineering legislation in a generation. Through historic investments, the bill enables federal agencies to support research and development funding across the nation.
The “and Science” section of the legislation calls for substantial government support of federal programs that nurture the next generation of scientists. Such support is crucial for not only ensuring the continuity of research in this country but also for providing the training, mentoring and career preparation needed to build a strong pipeline of scholars in STEM.
That said, in order to maintain our nation’s competitiveness on a global scale, we must turn the bill’s authorization of large amounts of research funding and training initiatives into actual appropriations. A lot is at stake for our nation’s research enterprise, especially given the significant funding shortages in FY24 appropriations which, for the National Science Foundation, are roughly $6 billion or 39 percent below the CHIPS and Science authorization levels. This is on top of the overall funding shortages for a handful of major U.S. science agencies which will continue to hover at a 25-year low.
In addition to increasing federal dollars for research projects, the CHIPS and Science Act holds tremendous promise for ensuring a strong future STEM pipeline. It includes provisions for the professional development and training of both graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in universities across the nation.
Many Congressional supporters enabled the passage of the legislation into law last year. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California and ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has long been an especially strong advocate for the scientific enterprise. In addition to assisting graduate students, she supported a STEM pipeline amendment that included postdoctoral researchers as eligible recipients of the professional development supplement. This amendment was included in the National Science Foundation for the Future Act in 2021 and later incorporated into the CHIPS and Science Act.
I was lucky enough to contribute to this language in the CHIPS and Science Act by also urging that the legislation include postdocs as recipients for professional development funds and expanding mentoring and career support for them. That occurred through advocacy with the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to incorporate a STEM pipeline amendment into the NSF for the Future Act. The amendment was offered on Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s behalf by House Science Committee then-Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson and adopted during full committee mark-up. That took place one year before the CHIPS and Science Act became law, and I discussed it earlier this year in a Think STEAM podcast, with an emphasis on the need to fully fund the “and science” part of the bill.
This is a positive example of how scientists can engage with Congress to advocate for important legislative changes that can help maintain our competitiveness in science and technology, and why our voices must be heard in the legislative branch. Such efforts can lead to positive impacts at federal agencies that will affect graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in universities across the nation. This is of great importance to members of the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC), who advocate for trainees to be supported in their research and professional development within member universities through career offices and other means.
In relation to federal agency actions, several articles have discussed the bill and its accomplishments at the one-year anniversary since becoming law, including the establishment or expansion of NSF programs to sustain U.S. competitiveness.
One such example is NSF’s Accelerating Research Translation, or ART, program that focuses on building capacity and infrastructure for translational research and regional innovation within higher education institutions. The program seeks to effectively train graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in translational research, benefiting them across a range of career options.
These types of programs are often first funded through a legislative process, and agencies then should incorporate them into university trainings where GCC members and advocates for institutional change can contribute. This is a good example of how legislative changes supporting training and career development directly impact the academic research enterprise.
To make these programs a reality from the top down, Congress must ensure the funding is appropriated. And, for their part, university administrative and training staff should take up the charge of continuing to train the next generation of scientists through these NSF programs in a bottom-up fashion.
Another example of contributions to supporting the future STEM pipeline comes from graduate students and postdoctoral researchers themselves, who worked to influence Congress by holding the first House Congressional Staffer Briefing on the Effects of Mentoring for Graduate Students last month. The event was organized by the Graduate Research and Development (GRAD) Coalition to support the GRAD Caucus, which was established last year to push Congress to take action on a number of issues affecting graduate students in STEM disciplines. This is a good example of how trainees themselves can influence the future of STEM by engaging with Congress in productive ways.
Call to Action
With Rep. Zoe Lofgren also serving as co-chair of the GRAD Caucus, the issues that the next generation in STEM fields confronts are now at the forefront in Congress—perhaps more than ever before. My hope is that advocacy for those issues will continue through Rep. Lofgren’s leadership and, more broadly, via the support of legislators across the aisle. This is a call to action for Congress to act in ensuring that federal funding is appropriated for professional development and training opportunities for up-and-coming scientists in the STEM pipeline, based on relevant provisions in the CHIPS and Science Act. And as Congress considers future legislation to support science in the United States, I also hope its members will continue to consider the needs of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, given the crucial role they play in advancing out nation’s global competitiveness.
Finally, I want to encourage early-career researchers to continue advocating for these issues in Congress. These actions will hopefully incentivize universities and their staff members to advocate for and engage in the programs outlined in the CHIPS and Science Act that advance education and training for their graduate students and postdocs—and, ultimately, our competitiveness in science and technology as a nation.