Commentary: Should We Be Worried About Funding for Science?

Recently, I saw a post on Twitter that linked back to this article: “Should the Government Fund Only Science in the “National Interest”?  After reading the article I was appalled.  Now, for full disclosure, I have never received (or even applied for) an NSF grant.  I have, however, applied for and received federal grants from sources other than NSF.  That being said, I wonder if the folks who are scrutinizing the NSF funding practices actually understand science at all.  Science in not just in the domain of the United States.  Science transcends geopolitical borders, language, race, creed, religion, and everything else.  The aim of Science is discovery by asking questions and solving problems.  The thing about Science though, is that researchers rarely make discoveries that result in a singular impact.  The research results are part of a larger puzzle — pieces fit together until we can see the larger picture.  But, many times we have no idea how many pieces are needed to complete the puzzle.  That is why we need the participation of all scientific fields.  The dictating of which fields and studies are “of highest priority”  is not something we should let politicians decide, but rather by scientists via peer-review.  The NSF is a model organization worldwide for funding of important, relevant research.  Diminishing that would  harm scientific discovery across the globe.  Mentioned specifically are “climate change education project, archaeology studies in Ethiopia, anthropology work in Argentina”.  I don’t know about you but I think education on climate change is important.  I also think archaeological and anthropological studies are important because guess what — understanding human history and nature affects the current understanding of ourselves.

Funding for scientific research is difficult enough to garner without it being further restricted.  If I want to do an experiment I have to figure out a way to get money to do it.  Usually that is in the form of grant funding.  The days of allocated funding are over and that is a shame.  I know I spend an inordinate amount of time writing grant proposals and filling out associated forms and other paperwork knowing that the chances are slim that the proposal will get funded.  I think if politicians really want to stop “wasted resources” they should look at the current grant funding model.  In my experience, hundreds of hours are spent developing these proposal and only a small portion are funded.  The real waste is the man-hours spent to develop these proposals that do not get funded.  I sure would like to see a study done on how much time is spent (and ultimately, unrewarded) doing proposals vs. the amount awarded (cost:benefit).

Science is under fire in this country and around the globe.  When I was younger, “University Professor” was highly regarded and trusted.  Now, I am not so sure.  The dictating of which science matters will only further erode the profession.  And who does that benefit?

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2 responses

  1. I love to see this message reiterated.
    It would be so much easier if scientists were able to say “if you invest x, we will discover this. This discovery will give you a 150% return on investment over a 5 year period.”
    But that’s obviously not how science works. Science has surprise byproducts, and history tells us those surprise byproducts have been useful. It’s not like 22% of our spending goes to science…22% of our spending goes to the military.

    • Yes, indeed. Thanks for your comments. We need to be better at conveying our value to the public, but it is not easy. Getting folks to better understand science is like getting them to eat more vegetables (instead of junk food).

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