14 September 2011


One of the more disturbing aspects of the current debate over government budget-cutting is that the one area of investment which can least afford loss of funding (and which gives us the most substantial return for every dollar spent) is public science ~ that is, "basic scientific research funded by governments," which has led to breakthroughs in everything from medicine to clean energy, internet communications to weather forecasting, to expanding our knowledge of life and the universe.

Public Science Triumphs, an article at the website io9, illuminates how public science is under threat. "The U.S. government has pledged to deal with the nation's debt crisis by cutting social spending. On the chopping block are many social programs, including some of the country's most important government-funded science institutions like the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA's budget has already been slashed, eliminating thousands of jobs and threatening to kill the James Webb telescope that would replace the aging Hubble telescope. (See the chart above, click to enlarge.)

"Some areas of research will be hurt more than others ~ more money will be allocated to projects on 'cybersecurity', for example, while funding for climate research at NOAA will be cut .... Cutting science funding is a way of killing our future."

Exactly so. The U.S. is falling further and further behind the European Union, Japan, and even China in the quality and quantity of scientists and mathematicians we produce at our major universities. Similarly, we are falling behind in scientific advancements in everything from computer technology to clean energy to medical research. Given that the sciences receive such a miniscule portion of the total federal budget (see graph below), further slashing science funding is not only myopic, it is self-destructive.

The article goes on to spell out certain public perception myths about science funding, and counters those myths with fact. Among the myths ~

~ Public science is a partisan issue, and Republicans have always opposed science funding in America.

~ Grants for publicly-funded agencies like NSF and NIH wind up funding useless and questionable forms of research.

~ If we cut government spending on the sciences, private funders will step up to fill in the gaps, and they'll do it without all that wasteful spending.

That last observation needs to be nipped in the bud. Private industrial research has one goal in mind ~ profit. It is not accountable to the public, is not subject to professional peer review, and serves only the selfish goals of the companies funding the labs and the research. Case in point ~ medicine. Pharmaceutical research is a quagmire of secrecy, corruption, and greed, all at the public's expense. During the years of preliminary research, corners are cut to hasten the arrival of the desired drug. Then that drug, because it is patented, is offered for sale at exorbitant prices for a set number of years (seven? ten?) before generic versions are allowed to enter production. In the meantime, the public foots the bill. This is hardly a model for efficiency or frugality.

How much more productive it would be to end tax loopholes for oil companies, and to require the wealthy in this nation to once resume their fair share of the burden of supporting government. Not to mention bringing to a close our involvement in two fruitless and costly wars. As it is, we live in a country of welfare for the rich, and inadequate income, poverty, and unemployment for too many others.

No comments:

Post a Comment