The Need of Our Times: Support for Fundamental Science Research

If you are an undergraduate student, you probably share some attributes with other readers of this blog. You are likely a millennial, meaning that you may not remember the fall of the Berlin wall, and to you, the space race is a distant past. It is also likely that you do not remember an era when scientists focused mainly on their work, instead of on how to secure the funding.

Graphic comparing federal funding shares and dollar amounts for science research and development (y-axis) by fiscal year, from 1960 to 2014 (x-axis).
Figure 1: Federal research and development (R&D) spending peaked in 1965, but has been decreasing since then. Though the total amount of federal spending (total outlays in federal budget) has increased dramatically, R&D spending has maintained a level below 5% for the majority of the last two decades. [click to enlarge]
Federal funding for “fundamental” or “basic” science research was at the all-time high in the 1960’s (see Figure 1). However, it has not increased in the recent past and, worse, has steadily declined. At a time when the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce is forecast to hit a new peak, this should be alarming. Consumers love 21st-century technologies, like smartphones and smart TVs, but what will 22nd-century technology look like with diminished federal funding? Because we regularly hear about budget cuts and are surrounded by economic uncertainty, we fail to recognize that science funding in the U.S. is not keeping up with that of other countries (see Figure 2 below).

Being an astronomy student, I will draw an example from my own field. Research in the astronomical sciences was essentially bipolar in the mid 20th century, largely governed by the U.S. and U.S.S.R., but is now multipolar. For example, one of NASA’s most famous space telescopes, Hubble, has international partners, as does NASA’s more recent creation, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). As more and more space observatories and missions have become multinational projects, the U.S. has managed to maintain its premier status in astronomy research. However, the U.S. will fall behind if the scientists behind these advancements do not have the funding to collaborate with the other growing contributors to this field.

Graph comparing science funding growth between countries between 1980 and 2013, showing a slower growth rate for the U.S. than for other countries in Asia and Europe.
Figure 2: China’s pace of growth has surpassed that of the U.S. since 2001. If this pattern continues, China will soon surpass the U.S. by providing more funding for research and development, and the U.S. will fall behind. [click to enlarge]
Few people doubt that investing in science is a good idea. But, as evidenced by the trends in funding over recent years (see Figure 3), the system underlying federal funding of science research needs a revamp. Losses accumulated over decades can have long-lasting ripple effects on scientific progress and our communities. Students tend to stay away from fields in which job promises are low and, unfortunately, STEM fields are joining that category. When these issues are accompanied by a lag in technological and entrepreneurial progress, not only the economy, but the national mood, is adversely affected by the lackluster approach to research funding.

Graph comparing funding sources from 1953 to 2013, which shows that science was primarily funded with federal government support before he 1980s, but is now mostly funded by non-government business and other sources.
Figure 3: For the past 36 years, businesses have provided the majority of research and development funding, meaning that scientists must rely more heavily on large companies, and not the federal government, for funding. [click to enlarge]
In addition to producing revolutionary technology, basic science funding supports communities and education. To conduct research, most scientists and entrepreneurs must compete for funding. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of the largest sources of research funding, and any researchers they support must allocate about 15% of their funds they receive to “broader impact” initiatives for the betterment of society. These funds are used to promote more inclusive participation, establish national and international partnerships, and train K-12 math and science teachers. The underlying concept of NSF-supported research, then, is that higher funding in sciences would lead to a more scientifically literate society. Moreover, igniting K−12 students’ interests in STEM disciplines will encourage students to pursue careers in STEM fields at a critical time for technological advancement.

Besides helping the ailing economy and the education system, federal funding in science research can benefit international relations. Personal contact within the scientific community increased many-fold when World War II and its preceding events brought an influx of scientists from Europe to the United States, including Albert Einstein. Basic science research projects have welcomed scientists from all parts of the world to the U.S. The Apollo–Soyuz Test Project was an unprecedented example of cooperation during the Cold War. This joint scientific venture forged a path for many future projects, helping to ease the tension between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. There will undoubtedly be many more instances in which scientific collaborations will be beneficial or necessary for global cooperation, and we should aim to be prepared and supportive of these cases.

Investment in fundamental science research is the backbone of many modern technological advances, including satellites, communication technologies, and GPS. It fuels technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and research in applied sciences. It improves scientific literacy in our communities, and bolsters the economy by creating more jobs. In contrast, declines in research funding stunt technological advancement, dampen entrepreneurial opportunities, and reduce the number of jobs available in related fields. While technological growth occurs rapidly in other countries, a nation without ample funding for science research will fall behind.

Edited by Rachel Skipper and Benjamin E. Draper.

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