The Danger of Cutting Federal Science Funding

Over the past two decades, I fear that we have reached a tipping point, where our top scientists are spending a larger and larger portion of their time raising funds and less and less time devoted to science.
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With all the discussion of "Sputnik moments" and the challenge of investment in science research and education in the United States, our federal government continues to reduce its support for science funding. Funding for science and technology is important because much of the economic growth of the past century and a half has been the direct result of technological development. In the post World War II era, the U.S. established an effective partnership between government basic research and private sector application of fundamental research in applied technologies, including computers, cell phones, the internet and of course a host of breakthroughs in medicine and medical technology. We all benefit from the massive impact of science and technology on our daily lives: autos, refrigeration, television, iPods, air conditioning, air travel, and of course, our food supply.

The Association for the Advancement of Science produces a number of excellent analyses of the stress on science funding. According to the Association:

"Federal research did very well between 1998 and 2003 because of the campaign to double the budget of NIH, the largest federal supporter of research. Other agencies also increased their research investments in that time period because a string of budget surpluses freed up resources for domestic appropriations. But with the return of budget deficits in 2002 followed by restraints on domestic spending thereafter, growth in research funding for NIH and other domestic agencies slowed in 2004 and then reversed. At the same time, DOD research support lagged as the Pentagon went to war in 2003 and shifted resources away from research toward near-term projects, and NASA research fell even within a stable R&D budget as it shifted resources from research to development. As a result, federal support for research is now in decline, with potential gains in the physical sciences more than offset by eroding support for biomedical research and other disciplines."

Declining funding in the U.S. must be examined in the context of global competition. Nations like China and Korea are increasing their investments in science by about 10% a year. The Association notes that federal research funding is declining as a share of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. While once it was over 1 percent of our GDP, it has been declining throughout the 21st century. There was a brief bump from the frequently maligned federal stimulus program, but that is rapidly becoming a fond if distant memory.

According to Patrick J Clemins, Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's R&D (Research and Development) Budget and Policy Program, the current Fiscal Year 2011 Federal Research and Development Budget is $148.1 billion, a reduction of 0.3% from Fiscal Year 2010. According to his analysis this breaks down into:

  • Basic Research:30.4 billion , +4.3%
  • Applied Research:31.6 billion, +2.1%
  • Development:81.5billion, -2.9%
  • Equipment and Facilities:4.6 billion, +1.3%
  • $82.2 billion for defense R&D, -4.8%
  • $65.9 billion for non-defense R&D, +5.9%

His analysis indicates that science funding in Fiscal Year 2011 declined by 1.4% in constant dollars from 2010. He observes that science funding peaked in 2009 and science funding has grown 0.7% since Fiscal Year 2004. Of course, not all science funding comes from the federal government. The U.S. science establishment remains the most impressive and the largest in the world. In addition to the work done at universities like the one where I work, we have a large number of federal laboratories. Of course, you can also find private sector R &D in everything from medicine to new forms of pizza. But government plays a key role in paying the costs of basic science that is too far from products and profits to generate private R & D investment. Government is also needed to help bridge the sometimes wide gap between basic and applied research.

With the House of Representatives in the hands of a Tea-Party influenced Republican party, the odds of funding increases for science are slight. My hope is that these conservative politicos might take a moment and read these words of conservative columnist George Will:

"America has been consuming its seed corn: From 1970 to 1995, federal support for research in the physical sciences, as a fraction of gross domestic product, declined 54 percent; in engineering, 51 percent. On a per-student basis, state support of public universities has declined for more than two decades and was at the lowest level in a quarter-century before the current economic unpleasantness... Republicans are rightly determined to be economizers. They must, however, make distinctions. Congressional conservatives can demonstrate that skill by defending research spending that sustains collaboration among complex institutions - corporations' research entities and research universities."

Mr. Will advocates "revving the scientific engine," because he understands its historic connection to the creation of wealth in this country. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am far from a disinterested observer of this issue. My day job is to serve as the chief operating officer of Columbia's University's Earth Institute. A majority of our funding comes from competitive, peer reviewed research grants funded by the federal government. Some of the most important fundamental research about our planet has been conducted by the amazing scientific community hard at work at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Our scientists must be part-time fundraising entrepreneurs in order to maintain their laboratories and research projects. To some degree, that is a very good thing that keeps us sharp and always on the cutting edge. But over the past two decades, I fear that we have reached a tipping point, where our top scientists are spending a larger and larger portion of their time raising funds and less and less time devoted to science. I worry about the trend line, and so too should our nation. Support for science education and research should not be seen as a conservative or liberal issue. It is about the quest for the fundamental knowledge that has allowed us to improve our standard of living and holds the promise of a sustainable planet, free from extreme poverty. Support for scientific research and education is a fundamental role of government similar to national security, emergency response, infrastructure and criminal justice. Reducing its resource base is a threat to our long-term economic growth.

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