There’s a carving of a crocodile on the walls of the old Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in honor of Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. It was commissioned by Peter Kapitza, a Soviet Nobel laureate, and various legends attach to its significance. “The Crocodile” was Kapitza’s pet name for Rutherford, and it is a symbol for father in Russia. Other legends include Kapitza’s fear of having his head bitten off by Rutherford, because Rutherford’s booming voice preceded his arrival anywhere, like the crocodile’s alarm clock in Peter Pan. But my favorite is that it symbolizes the forward progress of science, which, like the crocodile, never looks backward.
If you are an international member, please forgive my focus on the United States in this letter. After an election that was a resounding success in terms of voter participation, the incoming Biden administration is expected to restore the federal workforce and return to normal operations of government. It is a long, cold drink of water in the desert. We can all anticipate that objective facts and evidence-based policies will be agreed and acted upon. But what can we actually look forward to?
ASPB, working together with a government relations consulting firm, Lewis-Burke Associates, provides our community with a strong voice for plant science. The Science Policy Committee is our primary instrument for communicating with Congress—legislators and their aides—and federal funding agencies about the importance of our research and its value. This advocacy is one of the most important things that ASPB can do for plant biologists in the United States. As individuals, we have minor traction, and our institutions only sometimes have plant biology front and center, but ASPB always does and always will.
From Lewis-Burke’s most recent analysis of the U.S. general election, there are three main take-home messages. With Democrats in the majority in the Senate as well as the House, more pathways are open for funding of the Biden-Harris legislative agenda including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Climate Plan, and addressing systemic issues of racial inequality. However, research support will likely remain steady, and fiscal year 2021 appropriations proposals currently have small budget increases. Second, the impacts of the pandemic in the agricultural sector will focus attention on food supply disruption and related threats and the need to address these challenges. And third, turnover on numerous congressional committees, including the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and new leadership in the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, will provide new opportunities for ASPB to build relationships and engage champions for plant biology. This effort will be particularly important because climate change and the importance of inclusion in all sectors, including agriculture and STEM, will be key issues for both Congress and the administration.
The incoming Biden administration has signaled strong trust in science, and this bodes well for serious conversations on the impacts of climate change and the environment. In terms of research priorities beyond environment, there will likely be a continued focus on artificial intelligence and the bioeconomy as well as their potential intersections. As with the development of nanotechnology, the bioeconomy, an all-encompassing term that means many different things to different people, will continue to evolve. The definition of bioeconomy in the National Academies’ 2020 report Safeguarding the Bioeconomy is “economic activity that is driven by research and innovation in the life sciences and biotechnology, and that is enabled by technological advances in engineering and in computing and information sciences.” The unprecedented speed of vaccine design since January 2020, following the public release of the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence, and television footage of the first few British seniors getting their jabs in early December illustrate how modern tools of biology and a global scientific focus can solve problems in an accelerated time frame. Now we must parlay this example of success to keep protection of plant biodiversity, global food security, and the biomass-based bioeconomy at the forefront of the political agenda.
Politics is in our homes and in our labs, like it or not, and we are all somebody’s constituents. Just because the importance of plant biology is obvious to us doesn’t mean that it’s anyone else’s priority. We cannot move our science forward without a well-informed citizenry and elected representatives. It’s on all of us to learn how to communicate science much more effectively.
And although ASPB elections don’t have the consequence of presidential elections (thank goodness!), this is a gentle reminder that nominations for elected positions close February 12. ASPB relies on dedicated individuals who commit time and energy to leading the Society. It is also important to our profession that we recognize our colleagues’ achievements in plant biology; nominations for awards close February 19 (https://aspb-awards.secure-platform.com/a/). In addition to ASPB’s own awards, the Science Policy Committee often nominates individuals or groups for prestigious international awards such as the World Food Prize or prominent national awards such as the National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Please take the time to think about your colleagues and the recognition they deserve.
At the turn of the 20th century, Rutherford suggested that radioactivity provided a source of energy that explained the existence of the Sun for the millions of years required for life to evolve, as proposed by Charles Darwin. At the time, the age of the Sun was a matter of scientific controversy. I’m tickled that the Crocodile’s rationale was based in biology. He is also quoted as saying, “A theory that you can’t explain to a bartender is probably no damn good.” Our science might be complex, but our ability to explain it to bartenders, and everyone else, has never been so critical.
Note: For those of you interested in learning more about how best to communicate with your elected officials, please contact Crispin Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maureen thanks Bridget Krieger of Lewis-Burke and ASPB CEO Crispin Taylor for their helpful edits.