A distressing dissonance exists between some influential elements of our government and the scientific establishment. Whether evident in the recently proposed presidential budget or in the pronouncements from some members of Congress, one cannot but observe that science is under siege.
One may debate the motivations behind this (e.g. national debt concerns, presumptions–well founded or not–in future economic growth, skepticism–whether in good or bad faith–towards well-established climate science, etc.), but it is unreasonable not to understand, appreciate and internalize the benefits of scientific enquiry and of curiosity-driven research. One can argue that our quest for, and promotion of, rational thinking have rarely been more salient.
Federally funded organizations that have delivered so many discoveries are now facing dramatic cuts that would hobble our competitiveness, and I dare say, perhaps even our civilization.
The FY18 budget sent to Congress would cut federal spending on basic research by 13-17%.
The following funding level reductions have been proposed (in addition to a reportedly very low ceiling rate of 10% for permitted indirect costs):
National Institute of Health -22%
DOE Office of Science -17% (incl. -43% for bio/environment research)
NIST -23% (incl. -13% for research)
NOAA -16% (incl. -32% in weather & climate research)
U.S. Geological Survey -15% (incl. -24% in land resources mission area)
National Science Foundation -11% (incl. -14% in education)
The budget is partially based on an overly optimistic expectation that economic growth will generate enough revenues to eliminate the US deficit in 10 years. However the research done in our labs is the principal engine of that growth.
Too many ignore or misunderstand the benefits of the discoveries basic research has produced. One recalls Michael Faraday’s rejoinder to Sir William Gladstone (British Chancellor of the Exchequer) who, when questioning the value of Faraday’s experiments on electricity, was told: “Why, Sir, there is every possibility that you will soon be able to tax it!”
Similarly, most iPhone owners have no concept of the fact that this device would not exist without the fundamental and applied research that produced transistors, integrated circuits, cellular communications, GPS, LEDs, and a host of other technologies we now take for granted.
Our economic growth depends on a science and technology pipeline that starts with curiosity-driven research with no immediately discernible applications, followed by development and industry-ready maturation, and ending in entirely new products and services that can rarely be forecast at the outset. Cutting basic research funding will inexorably dry this pipeline up and severely damage future growth.
Most of that blue-sky research must be supported by our tax dollars and just as we must press our government to defend this essential endeavor, we must strive to explain these pursuits to all stake-holders–including the voters and the press.