As a recent graduate in the sciences, this hits closer to home than I am entirely comfortable with. A report, released by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology on August 29, 2013, describes the results of a recent survey of 3,700 American scientists. The survey dealt with the recent government cutbacks to science funding and how these are affecting the landscape of American research. The results were, to say the least, disheartening.
The report starts by outlining the recent cuts in government spending with regards to science. Now many would point to the fact that from 2002 to 2010 this spending steadily increased, only dropping off in the last three years. In fact, when inflation is taken into consideration, the 2002-2010 increases represent a flat budget, where the dollar amount increased but spending power did not. The report also describes how specific organizations’ budgets have dropped, noting that only the National Science Foundation has seen an increase, in line with current and past administrations’ policies of bolstering the NSF’s funds.
From there, the report goes on to lay out the four main themes it sees emerging as concerns for the American people as science funding drops: the benefits of research, losing the next generation of scientists, loss of federal investment, and a loss of U.S. leadership in global research.
One of the major points the authors seem to be driving home is that industrial innovation and progress is driven by scientific inquiry. Without government funded advances in technology and other fields, economic powerhouses such as Apple or Pfizer could never have achieved such prominence. As a result, the weakening investment in American research is also weakening our investment in the American economy and in those advances which create jobs and revolutionize markets. Advances in drug discovery both save American lives and move towards dramatically lowering the costs of healthcare. According to the report, a one percent drop in cancer mortality rates leads to $500 billion in savings for the U.S. The information technology sector, which relies heavily on scientific research, brings in nearly $1 billion to the U.S. GDP.
The next two themes are tied together in a way. On the one hand, the upcoming generation of scientists is left out in the cold (myself included, I suppose) as new openings disappear and projects have to struggle to maintain their current staffs. At the same time, new proposals, even ones building on previous and highly successful grants, are being rejected in greater numbers, as many of the report’s scientists lamented. Our current generation of scientists though, belongs to a group that was expensively and extensively trained throughout the 1990s with a promise of leading the United States to prominence on the cutting edge of global science. This investment is now being lost as those cutting edge projects find themselves stalled or postponed and their data drifts into the realms of the obsolete and unusable.
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of this report, from the government’s perspective, comes from the international angle. The United States is the only nation of the top ten investors in science to have not increased governmental funding since 2011. As a result, many respondents to the survey felt that it was now much easier for competing countries, such as China or the U.K., to catch and surpass the U.S. in research. At the same time, almost twenty percent of respondents said they were considering moving overseas to continue their career. If this becomes a widely viable option for scientists, that would be a serious loss for the American people on a number of fronts. Scientific greatness was once a point of pride for the United States, but if we continue along this trajectory, that age will certainly have passed.
Given the national debt, budget cuts are inevitable. But in an arena like research, where stagnation can be the equivalent of death, can we afford to limit progress? Budget cuts mean slowing movement towards new technologies which could both cut costs and increase profits. So beyond just hurting a new generation of bright and passionate scientists, or wasting a past generation’s investment of time, money, and potential, these decisions could very well harm the economy as a whole. On top of that, with the sequester firmly in place now, science spending is set to be cut another 2% in 2014, beyond the 5% it already had trimmed. Establishing a replacement budget is pivotal to progress, but seems highly unlikely given a general refusal of bipartisan compromise and the recent international crisis with Syria occupying the government’s attention.
But, as always, hope springs eternal. I mean, it hasn’t been scientifically proven that hope is a renewable and easily accessed resource, but the general consensus is that, once we have wasted all of our time, money, and effort, having exhausted all possible contingencies, we should still at least have hope.
It should be noted that this is actually a very well-written and easily understood report. If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking it out. Pretty cool charts too.