It is an honor to be elected your new president and to work in support of our common goals. It has been a productive year as president-elect, and it is a pleasure to share timely thoughts with you here.
No question: This is an exciting time to be a plant scientist. There are numerous unanswered but important fundamental research questions and diverse new and powerful research tools at our disposal. Furthermore, plant research is having, and will play, an ever-growing role in addressing sustainable solutions for our planet. Goals that were once considered lofty are now being pursued with a vengeance, even if some will take time to deliver. Examples include developing C4 photosynthesis in C3 plants, enhancing biotic and abiotic stress tolerance, nitrogen fixation—you name it. But make no mistake: addressing these seemingly applied questions will require in-depth understanding of the underlying fundamental principles and mechanisms of plant life.
For the plant biology community to provide its most effective contributions to ensure a sustainable future, basic research into underlying plant mechanisms and networks should not be short-changed, unless we want to reach these goals more slowly. The “war on cancer” is a prime example, where initially rapid solutions were sought—and over four decades later, the community has come to realize that any substantial gains that have been made are derived directly from basic scientific insights. I would argue that on a global scale plant biology research cannot afford to lose much time, given the growing world population; the continuing increase in incomes in many countries requiring increased resources; and the expected climate change–linked stresses on food, fiber, and bioenergy production. Advances in the plant sciences will not only be key to addressing these challenges, but they also will be the drivers of future economic growth.
One of the questions affecting plant biologists while also vexing funding agency managers and political representatives in many countries is, “What is the best mix of fundamental research and applied research for creating a better future and a stronger economy?” Not a simple question, to be sure. Given the importance of innovative discovery research, certain funding agencies in some countries have the mission to support basic research and have been the drivers of the modernday global economy using this approach (for example, the NSF in the United States, JSPS in Japan, DFG in Germany, and others). At the same time, other agencies that are in dire need of transformative discoveries are being pushed to direct a larger percentage of their funds into applied research. Fundamental and applied research go hand-in-hand and are not easily separable. Nevertheless, while there is a clear need for applied research, past experience shows that fundamental basic research has led to the development of entirely new sectors of the economy and to completely new “disruptive” technologies providing previously improbable and powerful solutions. One recent example is the cascade of discoveries of genome editing technologies, including TALENs (discovered during basic plant pathogen research) and the CRSPR/cas system (discovered during basic microbiological research). These technologies emanating from basic research promise to revolutionize every aspect of the plant, life, and health sciences, with many scientists and newly started companies already going full bore. The powerful solutions to our present and future problems will come in large part from discovery research, which will include, among others, gene discovery, targeted mechanistic research, omics revolution-based systems biology, and quantitative genetics illumination of trait improvements.
Investment in research, whether discovery or applied, is also critical for maintaining a strong training platform for young scientists who will be the future leaders and innovators. A recent opinion piece in The Scientist by ASPB past president Alan Jones has summarized the need for increased training of the next generation of plant and agronomic scientists (http://tinyurl.com/m6chbrr).
What Can ASPB Do For You?
What can ASPB’s plant scientists, educators, industry members—all of our members—do to help elected officials make good decisions for the innovation enterprise? And importantly, what can ASPB do to help you—our membership—connect with policy makers (in addition to the many other ongoing efforts that ASPB is already making)? At the international level, ASPB has been working with and providing strong support for the Global Plant Council (GPC; http://globalplantcouncil.org/home). The GPC is a coalition of plant and crop science societies from around the globe that aims to coordinate and bring greater visibility to plant scientists’ efforts to address pressing global issues, including hunger, energy, and climate change. One of the GPC’s core missions is effective global advocacy for plant science research. ASPB is a member of the GPC and is working closely with the GPC in supporting this goal on behalf of ASPB members around the world. The GPC’s blog (http://blog.globalplantcouncil.org) is an increasingly rich source of information, and its Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/GlobalPlantGPC) is active and well-populated. In the following, I would like to propose a first step at how we can assist our U.S. membership to make our voices heard.
With a new Congress set to convene in the United States in January 2015, now is an excellent time for the ASPB community to stay informed and get involved to influence key congressional decisions such as funding for federal research agencies (NSF, DOE, USDA-NIFA, and NIH). Congress receives input from ASPB. For example, every member of Congress received a copy of Unleashing a Decade of Innovation in Plant Science: A Vision for 2015–2025 after it was published by ASPB last summer, and our Science Policy Committee has been following up in various ways since. However, policy makers also want to hear from scientists in their respective districts, from trainees on their own paths to becoming the educators, researchers, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow and from ASPB members at any stage of their careers. Your individual, personal perspective and your personal story, background, and motivation will make a difference.
While there is much we can do, as a first step in ASPB serving your interests, I ask that those ASPB members interested in becoming more engaged and proactive (at any stage of your career and training) please contact ASPB and provide your email address to Tyrone Spady, ASPB’s director of legislative and public affairs (firstname.lastname@example.org). Tyrone will then be able to alert you of new developments and provide you with helpful information on possible actions. ASPB will inform you of federal budget decisions and other relevant congressional activities and ask for your rapid response to help influence Congress’s thinking before decisions are made. In the past, ASPB has communicated new developments to a smaller group of the ASPB membership, and I am enthusiastic about enabling engagement of our broader membership now. You may decide to write an op-ed piece for your local newspaper, meet with your congressperson, or come up with other creative ideas.
To aid your connection with congressional representatives, ASPB has created the Communicating with Congress page (http://tinyurl.com/ASPB-Congress). Following are some of the resources posted on that page:
- Meeting request and advocacy letter templates
- General talking points and communications tips
- Links to match your zip code to your congressperson
Communicating and meeting with elected officials and their staff are important activities to educate our representatives about the sheer excitement you bring to your research, as well as the economic impact of plant biology discoveries. Those communications also will increase the influence of plant biologists and amplify the voices of our community. Members of Congress are regularly in their home districts during weekends, recess periods, and just prior to congressional elections. These represent great opportunities to engage them directly and possibly to establish longer-term communication channels, and I highly encourage you to pursue these opportunities. If you are unable to meet directly with your congressperson, meeting with their staff is very much worthwhile, as the staff is highly influential in shaping policy.
As a former member of ASPB’s Science Policy Committee, I can tell you that outreach and meeting with policy makers are critical to ensure that our scientific enterprise stays strong. If you are interested in getting involved, want assistance in organizing a meeting with your congressperson, or have ideas about how we can improve our advocacy efforts, please send your contact information to Tyrone (email@example.com). This is a great opportunity, and I am happy to be working on this initiative.
As a final comment, the past year of activities as president-elect for ASPB has made it abundantly clear to me how hard working ASPB’s staff is, and how motivated the staff is to support the diverse missions of our members. I hope with this first letter that we can help you engage and have your voice heard. I am looking forward to serving ASPB during this year.