A Pew Center scientist connects the dots of the recent debt ceiling debate, global economic recession, and ideological clashes involving cultural issues. The outlook, he writes, threatens scientific research and demands scientists’ active communications efforts.

Pew Center scientist, climate policy expert, and communications champion Jay Gulledge has issued a full-throated call-to-action to the science community: It’s time for them to aggressively confront “a perfect storm of budget cuts and eroding political support” for science overall.

Gulledge’s “Crunch Time for U.S. Science” column came in a September online Nature commentary in which he linked the recent U.S. debt crisis debate, the erosion of support for government-funded research in the wake of the end of the cold war, and ideological and political clashes involving science and cultural issues. Add in the “global economic crisis,” he cautioned, and prospects rise for a long-term decline in ongoing support for scientific research. He wrote that he fears the end of “the bipartisan backstop to science funding,” certainly including, but not limited to, support for climate research. He pointed to the challenges facing the newly established 12-member bipartisan congressional “super committee” on budget reform as another key, and high-risk, factor in shaping federal research funding.

“Whether future Congresses will soften the impact of the debt-ceiling deal depends on the pace of economic recovery, the evolution of the culture wars, and the public’s perception of the return on taxpayer investment in research,” Gulledge wrote. He did not mention that few currently anticipate a quick pickup in the pace of economic recovery.

Gulledge wrote that the scientific community can influence the public’s perception of the value of research funding, but only if it can develop a “coherent strategy” for doing so. He wrote that decades of cold-war “complacency” leave scientists unsuited to take on this responsibility. “The ongoing public misunderstanding of science shows that the established approaches are inadequate,” he wrote. His antidote: an institution to quantify science research contributions to society and to the community and to then “communicate these effects to the public and politicians through the media and other channels,” emphasizing contributions to national security where justified.

Gulledge urged scientific institutions to better incorporate socioeconomic benefits into their missions and to reverse situations in which production of social benefits “is scantily rewarded.”

“Peer-reviewed publications, research grants, and professional impact should remain the core metrics of success in academia,” he wrote. But he urged greater respect for assessment reports and science-based articles in public policy, interdisciplinary, and business journals. Same holds for grants to scientists from “mission-oriented agencies, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations.” And evaluations of impact need to better reflect “influence on government, business, and civil-society decisionmakers.”

Without such an effort by the science community, Gulledge concluded that he fears “the erosion of science in general.”