The following article appears in the journal JOM,
53 (6) (2001), p. 11

ASTRA Provides a Voice for the Physical Sciences

Kelly Roncone

From 1985 to 1999, U.S. federal spending as a percentage of the U.S. gross domestic product dropped 15% in mathematics, 21% in engineering, and 29% in the physical sciences. With the proposed 2002 federal budget indicating another disappointing year for many federally funded R&D agencies, members of the math, physical sciences, and engineering communities are working to claim a greater share of the federal budget.

In response to declining R&D numbers, Mary Good, who has served the scientific community in industry, academia, and government and is currently president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), initiated an effort in late 1999 to establish an organization that would unite industry, scientific and professional societies, coalitions, and universities to lobby for substantial and sustained increases in federal investment in mathematics, physical sciences, and engineering research. This idea has developed into the Alliance for Research in Science and Technology for America (ASTRA), a nonprofit advocacy organization for the physical sciences.

ASTRA has attracted the attention and support of universities, industry, and scientific foundations. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation provided funds for start-up, and much of ASTRA’s current support comes from professional societies and associations including The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS).

With approximately 25% of its members in R&D, TMS views ASTRA as an organization that can directly benefit its members and further its mission to promote the global science and engineering professions concerned with minerals, metals, and materials, according to Alexander Scott, executive director of TMS. TMS made the decision to join ASTRA at its February Board of Directors meeting.

As early members of ASTRA, TMS and other members can influence the development of this new organization, according to Bob Boege, executive director of ASTRA. These groups hold voting membership on the steering committee and interim board, and their decisions will guide early efforts to promote increased R&D funding for the non-biological sciences.

ASTRA has identified one of the primary causes for lack of federal funding as poor communication of the value of scientific R&D to legislators.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are receiving large amounts of government funding, equal to all other civilian science funding combined, at the same time that Re-search!America, an advocacy group for the biomedical sciences, aggressively voices its case to government leaders.

Merrillea Mayo, TMS Representative to ASTRA, worked on R&D legislation in Senator Joseph Lieberman’s office from 1998–1999. During this time, she noted that the staff member who covered NIH funding received multiple letters each week on the issue of NIH funding.

“Over the course of a year, this added up to several hundred letters. I, covering the physical sciences and engineering, received exactly two such letters over the same year,” Mayo said.

While the NIH has industry support and a structured organization to plead its case, the physical sciences have a handful of representatives who meet informally.

“Physical science is going to have to make its own case, just as life science is now effectively making its case to the public and Congress,” said Bill Bonvillian, legislative director for Lieberman, in an ASTRA brochure.

ASTRA argues that waning R&D funding will impact not just the scientific community, but the entire nation, as lack of R&D funding in the physical sciences will lead to shortages of qualified professionals in science and engineering in the United States and to a decline in the country’s technology base.

One of ASTRA’s primary concerns is in the field of education.

“There is an incontrovertible connection between federal research funding for science research and the number of degrees earned in science and engineering disciplines,” Good writes in an essay to be published in the July-August issue of the Industrial Research Institute’s journal Research-Technology Management. She also says that since 1986, the number of bachelors' degrees awarded in the physical sciences has declined by 12.6%, mathematics by 19.21%, and engineering by 21.1%. Of students graduating with degrees in these fields, nearly one-half are non-U.S. residents. The United States already lags behind most of the industrialized world in the percentage of 24-year-olds with natural science and engineering degrees. In summary, Good's argument states that depriving universities and other government-funded organizations of R&D funding will eventually hurt the competitiveness of the United States in science and technology. This has implications for the economic health of the nation, as well as the standard of living for its citizens.

“For a nation to decrease its R&D investments in science, engineering and mathematics during a time of surpluses is mind boggling, especially when one sees the results of these investments over the last 50 years,” said Diran Apelian, chair of the TMS Public and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We must be steadfast in our resolve, and we need to do a much better job of presenting the reasons why these are critical investments for the nation on the Hill.”

Still in the early phases of operation, ASTRA has created a business plan, conducted focus-group studies to determine public opinion toward its cause, and developed graphical support for the link between research spending and technically trained workers.

Currently, the group’s main goals include adding ten industrial members to the organization. Because industry receives very little government funding for research, it is positioned to make a significant and credible argument on behalf of research for the good of the nation, says Mayo. Thus far, in its pursuit of industry members, ASTRA has attracted the support of IBM Corporation, Lucent Technologies, Kodak, and Battelle.

To further this goal, member societies of ASTRA are actively seeking industry participants. In April, TMS President Wayne Hale sent letters to more than 50 companies employing TMS members and encouraged them to become industry supporters of ASTRA.

In July, ASTRA will complete its start-up phase and begin working toward new goals. In the coming year, ASTRA aims to undertake substantial lobbying and advocacy efforts to increase fiscal year 2001 mathematics, physical sciences, and engineering research investments and to increase investments in the fiscal year 2002 budget.

For more information on ASTRA, contact Robert Boege, executive director of ASTRA, at r_boege@acs.org or (202) 872-6160.

Kelly Roncone is a staff writer for JOM.

Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 2001

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