The Need for Science Funding

February, 2014

The importance of science. The vast majority of problems in today’s world –resources, energy, health, environment, climate, transportation, communication, among others- will require solutions from science and engineering. In addition, each participating nation must support its scientific community in order to maintain prestige. For at least the last decade, declining or stagnant funding of science has seriously affected American research in a number of fields. The irresponsible sequester did further damage, but the biggest problem is the lack of demand from the public: our tax dollars need to be invested in science that benefits the public.

Training. We encourage young people to pursue scientific careers, but we do not provide the jobs. We are proud of the accomplishments of the American scientific community, but we do not fund it well enough to keep pace with other nations in a world of global science. We are losing ground in this respect and a comparison of science funding across nations shows why.

Young researchers are particularly vulnerable since, as a general rule, established scientists have more access to governmental funds. Established scientists, especially those in universities, have both more resources at their disposal for funding research and more experience in obtaining funding.

Reduced budgets in science departments means that support for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers is cut. In many fields young people who have spent years training, often in more than one discipline, are finding their career options substantially diminished. While the US seems willing to invest in STEM education programs at the pre-college level, low funding for research reduces the actual number of research jobs available. This short-sighted policy means that many young researchers are therefore forced to resort to short-term, serial post-doc positions or find other careers.

Innovation. Insufficient funding undermines innovation across all scientific fields. Many of the ideas that are now standard science were originally rejected or ignored. For this reason, scientists today are more aware of the importance of exploring new concepts and methods. However, the committees that determine who gets funds are often veteran researchers who represent a kind of establishment. Being human, they don’t always recognize the significance of new ideas.

In medical research –cancer and other diseases, for example— innovation is essential. But such work requires the commitment of highly skilled scientists and many years of investigation and testing. Inadequate funding results in personnel cuts in labs, slowdown and even suspension of projects, and numerous restrictions that undermine scientific progress.

Although there are some special funding programs in the US earmarked for innovative research, such programs are limited and highly competitive, and most applicants remain unable to initiate new work. When funds are limited, the entrenched view –even if wrong—may well prevail. Further, there may be concern about taking risks when money is scarce, even if new ideas seem worth funding.

Vested interests. The failure to fund scientific research adequately may also make it more difficult for scientists to avoid pressure from numerous industries and corporations (oil, tobacco, pharmaceutical companies, for example) that pay well to encourage “scientific” support favoring their products and policies. While there is growing alarm within the scientific community about a situation in which independent research is compromised, there is relatively little governmental protection of researchers who are pressured in this way, and lack of normal funding can lead to bad science.

Declining leadership. Although the United States has for decades led world research in many areas of science, its position is now rapidly eroding. Other nations such as China and Japan have significantly increased their research support as the United States has reduced its funding. While a more global scientific community is both inevitable and beneficial, the failure of American science to generate its share of innovative work will diminish the quality and accomplishments of science in general.