December 29, 2010

Looking in a mirror: government funding of science

Science. Research and development. Call it what you will.

Scientific American is poised to publish an article outlining how the US government (that's us and our tax dollars!) prioritizes money for research and development. The graphic above is from the January 4, 2011 issue, summarized on-line now.

These are not the entire budgets of each agency....just what they budget for research and development. Science.

Of course, it's interesting to compare where our government (through pressures, real or perceived, from tax-payers to their legislators) prioritizes research funds. It's easy for a wildlife ecologist to get upset---"maybe I should go into defense research". Well, several of my colleagues do research on military bases for this reason....effects of military training on a species of conservation concern, etc. Eugene Odum and his brother, Howard (both founding ecologists), were renowned for figuring out how to tap into military and health budgets to fund ecology. A long term research site in the rainforests in Puerto Rico was established to determine the effects of low-level radiation (which everyone figured was safe) on the rainforest--during the Cold War years. The radiation emission device is gone, and the long term research site remains. Creative adaptation to funding sources.

Of course, the real reflection of this figure is of our society: what we think is important. In lean budget years, research and development (science) is always threatened. Research that provides results which keep people alive is most important. It's just a fact.

It's easy for a biologist who has studied species X for their entire life to begin to believe the world revolves around Species X and that specific research. But, really?! Of course not. If that scientist can't figure out a way to communicate the importance of their research, then they might as well pack their bags and head to the Defense Department.

One of my favorite quotes about research comes from Charles Darwin, who wrote in a letter to Fawcett, in 1861:

“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the stones and describe the odd it is that anyone would not see that all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service.”
His point? If there isn't any application for your research, it's not worth much.

Now, does that mean that basic research is less important than applied research? Hardly. Basic research provides fundamental information that makes applied research possible, in many cases. But, I would argue that scientists doing basic research must come out of their labs and figure out how to communicate the importance of their research to the public, and policy makers---who develop funding priorities.

In 1998, Sydney Brenner wrote the following in the journal, Science:

"The history of the last 25 years teaches us the profound lesson that it is necessary for scientists to communicate to society at large not only the content, use, and misuse of scientific discoveries, but also what their work tells us about the intrinsic limitations of our bodies and minds. This is not an easy task, especially in a science whose content becomes more complicated every day."
I've blogged about the importance of communication to science before, and funding is where it all comes home--at least in terms of being able to do science. Dr. Brenner stated:

"Actually, the answer to the question of which type of science to fund is quite simple: Since all science is problem driven, it should be judged by the quality of the problems posed, and the quality of the solutions provided."
The last reflection of this depiction of our research spending is that the figure only shows OUR research spending (the USA). Dr. Brenner also talked about the paradox that exists when you start to think of research spending, world-wide, relative to our world's problems:

"In advanced societies an increasing proportion of national wealth is now spent on health and recreation and large sums of money are devoted to military enterprises, while in the underdeveloped world famine and pointless wars still exact a terrible toll of human lives, malnutrition and disease are still rife, and even the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter cannot be provided for all. There is no doubt that great advances could be made in the treatment of malaria and other parasitic diseases that afflict more than half of the world's population, but the people who have these diseases also have another called MDD—money deficiency disease."
Having spent a year in southern Africa, this notion really hits home to me. It makes my disdain for the disproportionate funding in the figure seem petty. My wish to receive a large grant to study species X's reaction to habitat transformation on the Great Plains doesn't stack up--in the broad scheme of things--to the economic and health needs of many people in many countries.

And so, the conundrum. Nebraskans pay my salary to solve problems in Nebraska (at least, under current legislative funding to the University of Nebraska, they do). And so, I search for research funds to do just that. Can Nebraskans also afford a little of my time to allow me to train scientists from other countries? Probably. Will I sleep better at night? Definitely.

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