From the Editor’s Desk: Public Funding of Science

YouCut – a first-of-its-kind project – is designed to defeat the permissive culture of runaway spending in Congress. It allows you to vote, both online and on your cell phone, on spending cuts that you want to see the House enact.

As part of the Youcut project, Representatives Adrian Smith and Eric Cantor earlier this month called for everyone to search NSF’s database for questionable grants that should not be funded.  Two representative grants, one supporting “soccer research” and another on “sounds in video games” were offered as examples of wasteful spending.  Dan Vergano at USA Today provides an excellent clarification of the actual research

For example, the soccer study turns out to be computer scientists studying how remotely connected teams form to conduct “nanoscience, environmental engineering, earthquake engineering, chemical sciences, media research and tobacco research.” And the “breaking things” study turns out to be acoustics experts ” pursuing fundamental advances in computational methods while solving several particularly challenging sound rendering problems,” so that the U.S. military, among others, can create more realistic combat simulators for troops.

Both seem well worth funding.

Equally important is that targeting NSF to reduce wasteful spending is by no means an effective mechanism to reduce government spending.

If we defund NSF entirely it will save 0.69% of the entire budget. Way to go Adrian, you helped a lot a whole 1/100th of 1/100th of 25/1000ths of 1%!!!

While we are looking to save money…the $174,000 salary for 535 members of congress works out to be $93,090,000.  Most members of Congress will also earn between $1,000,000 and $4,000,000 in pension benefits.  But I digress, as we can all think of ways to trim the national budget.  Military spending anyone?  I think despite party affiliation, we all recognize a growing deficit and the pressing need for a balanced budget.

Peer review by the masses?

Interestingly, the collected panties of the science blogosphere were quite ruffled.  Initially, yours truly needed a team of experts, not to worry they were not NSF funded, to help remove my drawers from my highly intellectual ass.

Why should the public peer review my grants?  How dare they think they are experts on my field?  This is nothing short than an attack on NSF and science in general!  We fumed in around the web in our respective collectives loathing the public who dared to judge us.

We came up with witty metaphors to illustrate why this was a bad idea.  “Would we ask random people on the street to advise brain surgery.”

Ironically, the same people suggesting that the public should not evaluate NSF grants and heralding NSF’s peer review system were also recently discarding the expertise requirement and the sanctity of peer review to criticize a recent study’s findings of new arsenic based life form. And speaking of irony, I love the tweet that exclaimed this was the end of publically funded science. Ha the public is removing publically supported science.  How dare they!

At some point as I read through the blogs, I acquired a rather unfortunate and foul taste in my oral cavity.  While lambasting the idea of “allowing” the public to “review” grants, many crossed or approached a dangerous line. Some seem to be arguing that we should fight against the public playing a role in determining science funding.

Do the masses get a say?

Let’s not forget the National Science Foundation, created by a Congressional Act in 1950, is supported by taxpayer dollars.  Therefore, and without question, taxpayers, all of them, get a say in how NSF spends its money.  Just like they should be allowed input into every other facet of our government’s budget.  So the issue should not be, as so many proposed either intentionally or unintentionally by clouding the issue, whether the public can provide input but how the public can provide input.

David Bruggeman states it well and conveys many of my own thoughts (emphasis mine):

The execution of this project is pretty lousy, targeted at political outcomes much, much more than making meaningful policy changes.  Looking at the targeted programs in the YouCut program, most of them are relatively small in terms of funding (this week’s candidates are all under $50 million – a tiny fraction of a percentage point of the federal budget), and many seem to be targets more for political purposes than actual fraud, waste, unnecessary duplication or abuse.  The reporting mechanism is particularly lousy as it won’t be able to collect any meaningful data about grants or programs.  It’s more about what people don’t like, without room for any explanation.  Finally, a program like this, placed on the website of a political operation, makes it really easy to politicize the whole thing, and roll it into some pale imitation of Senator William Proxmire’s grandstandingback in the 1980s.  ‘Great soundbites’ lousy policies.

That said, I see no reason why the public shouldn’t provide feedback to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its grantees about grant proposals that they think are duplicative or wasteful. It is public money being spent, and if grantees can’t explain their work to the public, I don’t think they’ve earned the right to it. There is the matter of how such feedback is conducted.  Rep. Cantor is doing it the wrong way to achieve meaningful reform (and plenty of people already come up with grants for stuff that seems ridiculous), but he’s shown little evidence that he’s interested in such a thing.  The NSF and other research agencies can make their grant award data more readily accessible (it’s not obviously part of NSF’s Open Government Directive page) and engage the public with why various research grants deserve the funding they receive.  Who knows, you might just nudge scientific understanding communication up a bit.

So maybe it is our own damn fault for piss poor communication.  And I am sorry, you writing a blog that receives a few hundred hits a day and is mainly visited by your parents once a month, a few of your colleagues weekly, and other science bloggers perhaps daily, probably isn’t going to cut it any more (more on that juicy topic later).  Instead of continuously treating the public as the other to be feared, which is mainly what I observed this week, we need to get off our damn academic high horses and be better at bringing them into the fold.

Why we should publically fund science?

Instead of turning this whole Youcut fiasco into an opportunity on why basic science funding is important, many found it an opportunity to further segregate science from the public.  Shame on us all.

To rectify this here is a list of reasons why we should publically support science:

  1. By publically funding science, we ensure scientific knowledge belongs to us and not kept in isolation by companies or individuals.
  2. The only viable alternative to public funding is private funding.  This would result in the future of science becomes biased at the whim of those motivated by wealth.
  3. Even those areas with direct human relevance are often not supported by the private sector. There is no profit in curing a rare tropical disease in a developing country.
  4. A shift away from public funding of fundamental research would lead to long-term scientific stagnation.
  5. Basic research of all types lays the groundwork for future and potentially more applied research.  It is part of our national infrastructure.
  6. Basic research may in itself have unforeseen practical applications.
  7. We has a society should continuously strive to expand our knowledge and explore new unknowns. Simply put, we as human beings are curious, and it is sensible to focus some of our collective resources on discovery.
  8. Our knowledge is a source of national pride, or lack of it is a source of national disgrace.
  9. Funding scientists to do research just doesn’t pay scientists it pays people downstream, e.g. administrative and janitorial support staffs, all the people who produce scientific equipment and supplies, and countless others.

Last, I like this quote I found at the Questionable Authority

The third and last duty of the sovereign or commonwealth is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it therefore cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain.

Adam Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Perhaps this article upsets you as a scientist.  Perhaps it will start another of those ultimately pointless blog flame wars amongst the science blogging collective that nobody in the real world gives damn about.  But we have done horrible job justifying why we spend billions of taxpayer dollars annually.  Indeed, I found precious few websites of why we should fund basic science and more on why we shouldn’t fund it.  I challenge you to add to my list above either here in the comments,on Twitter with the hashtag using the tag #YMoney4Sci, or on your blogs.  I pose the question to you: Why should we fund basic science?

Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (, connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

8 comments on “From the Editor’s Desk: Public Funding of Science
  1. Like Bruggeman said, YouCut is horribly executed and laden with political overtones. It is essentially irrelevant and give the appearance of progress by the republican party in face of democratic “opposition”. I couldn’t find ANY science programs on the chop block and indeed of the last 14 weeks of suggestions, none of the listed winners were science proposals.

    Another thing is that post-hoc pretend cutting of NSF programs is bogus as the awards are already made. It could serve a function for new grants in submission. But reviewing grants already awarded is just pointless. Congress can, and has, defunded proposals but it seems to be a pretty rare occurrence and something that has to go through the gamut of congressional inquiry which takes god knows how long.

    But scientists do always need to make their work accessible, no matter the imperative or the funding source. That much is clear. Being under the gun makes us better communicators and possibly could help us to improve our proposals by ensuring we there are mechanisms in place that have some sort of benefit, tangible or not, to other people. Perhaps, NSF might want to survey the public to see what THEY would like to see funded, or know more about. Wouldn’t it be fun to gather all the ‘Excellents’ up that didn’t get funded and save 500K each year for a popular vote? Let the people choose something to fund, it gets them involved and personally invested in science.

  2. Science often sounds funny; hilariously, the funny sounding stuff is often the same bits that go on to have industrial applications. Velcro sounds stupid, but it makes money, for instance.

    Some politicians use a shell game with science, foreign aid, & the arts, as though they key to balancing the budget lay there. This is just a distraction. There are big ticket items…& there is everything else.

    If you ask me– & this might be a little bit of a political statement, so apologies in advance– you can’t continue to spend while reducing taxes. Why is “tax & spend” a bad thing? That is how it ought to work, right?

  3. This is an excellent post and really highlights the importance of good clear communication between scientists and the public about what we do and what it’s for. Makes me think about some things. Thanks.

  4. What you say about getting the public more involved and mentally invested in science research makes a lot of sense, and I agree that more effort needs to be made to make the public more aware of publicly-funded research. However, giving the ability to deny grants to the public brings ideologies into science–what if research uses stem cells and falls well within all stem cell research guidelines, but is rejected because a critical mass of people vote it down? Or if climate change research is halted because a senator tells his or her constituents to reject it in YouCut? I think this is a dangerous way to bridge research and the public.

  5. This may seem like a ridiculous comparison, but we don’t let people decide on where funds go for military or health spending. Not directly. That’s what the representatives we elect are supposed to decide on, hopefully with expert support. Most people don’t have the expertise to directly decide on where science funding should go. Should they be completely removed from the process? Probably not, but for them to directly decide? Not with how poorly our education system works.

    Like someone mentioned, I have the sneaking suspicion that funding for political hot potatoes like climate change, stem cells and, unfortunately, vaccinations studies could go unfunded with direct participation.

    Now, granted, even if the political climate were to change I still wouldn’t think the public should be making decisions directly. I would still rather have representatives and panels be the primary deciding body.

  6. Just to raise a voice of Devil’s Advocacy here (as I agree largely, but, I’m curious as to what you think), the arguments that are rising here sound quite similar to the accomodationist arguments in the 80s and 90s for why the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) needed to be, well, maybe not eliminated, just, you know, better controlled. Why have the NEA fund arts that people don’t want/aren’t interested in/may even be offensive to some? After all, it’s the taxpayers’ money. They should have some say over what the NEA funds. Artists should have to justify and publicize the importance of their work. #YMoneyForArts.

    Do we think that has helped the arts in America? Ask some artists. I doubt you’ll get a positive answer.

    So, do we think this viewpoint will help the future of Science in America?

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