Science is expensive, and for most of its history, the funding has come from wealthy patrons: nobility, the very rich, and — most notably — the US government. President Donald Trump plans to change that, with his plan to slash spending on basic science by 10.5 percent in 2018.
Don’t panic yet: there’s a hurdle. The White House has to convince lawmakers to roll back the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which is aimed at keeping a balance between military and civilian spending. It covers about a third of the government’s money (the other two-thirds are programs like Medicare, paying interest on the national debt, and legally mandatory spends). In 2018, that law mandates no more than $549 billion can be spent on defense; and $515 billion for discretionary spending on everything else. To roll the BCA back, 60 senators must vote in favor, which means that at least eight Democrats or Independents have to support the move, writes Science.
Trump’s plan calls for an extra $54 billion in defense funds, which would probably come out of the non-military discretionary money. The threatened money goes to organizations like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other civilian science programs. Of course, not every program is necessarily going to be cut. But likely targets include the Environmental Protection Agency, foreign aid, and programs to address climate change, according to Science.
Cuts to civilian science spending are immensely short-sighted. The US’s lead in science and engineering is already shrinking as other nations — especially China — catch up, according to the National Science Foundation’s 2016 report. The number of science and engineering degrees awarded to Chinese graduates has increased fourfold, and the number of doctoral degrees there is increasing rapidly as well.
That’s a problem, because investing in research and development — that is, producing and funding scientists and engineers — has been one of the primary forces driving the US economy since World War II. In fact, a pro-science stance was endorsed by the original US president, George Washington, who told Congress in the first-ever State of the Union address that “there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”
The Department of Energy, for example, is responsible for funding a lot of research that led to technologies we use every day. The DOE pioneered the optical storage technology we now use for virtually all data storage. Other DOE innovations include fluorescent lights, communications satellites, and early wind and solar technology. Between 1978 and 2000, the DOE spent $17.5 billion (in today’s dollars) on research on energy efficiency and fossil fuels. That has yielded $41 billion in economic benefits, according to an essay written by Bill Gates in Reuters. Microchips, GPS, and of course the internet all wouldn’t have been possible without federal funding and research.
It’s also helpful to remember that many in private industry get their start working on government projects. Take Google, for instance: the internet giant now employs about 60,000 people, and its parent company, Alphabet, is currently worth $581 billion. Google began with Larry Page and Sergey Brin who were students working together on a National Science Foundation grant.
But advances in technology aren’t the only reason to fund science: government funding has allowed for invaluable breakthroughs in medicine, too. A 2015 study found that half of the most transformative drugs of the last 25 years were made possible because of publicly funded research. Antidepressants like Prozac were developed by pharmaceutical companies thanks to fundamental discoveries about neurotransmitters that were made by government funded researchers. Another study in 2011 determined that “virtually all the important, innovative vaccines that have been introduced during the past 25 years” were created by public-sector research institutions. A lot of cancer research is funded through the National Cancer Institute, which received $5.21 billion from Congress in 2016 alone.
Americans widely support a federal government that invests in research and development. Roughly seven in ten Americans think that government funding of basic science research pays off in the long run, according to a 2015 Pew poll. And 60 percent of US adults consider government funding essential for scientific progress. (Only 34 percent think that’s true for private investment alone.)
Government-funded innovation is one of the things that has made America great. Slashing spending for science isn’t a good deal for anyone, and it will rob us of a better future.