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.
Federal funding for “fundamental” or “basic” science research was at the all-time high in the 1960’s (see Figure 1), but it has declined since then. The stagnation of funding in recent years is alarming, because the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce is forecast to hit a new peak. 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, we fail to recognize that science funding in the U.S. is not keeping up with that of other countries (see Figure 2).
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), businesses have surpassed the federal government in providing research funding. 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 prospects are low and, unfortunately, some STEM fields may join that category. When the lackluster approach to research funding is accompanied by a lag in technological and entrepreneurial progress, both the economy and the national mood become adversely affected.
In addition to producing revolutionary technology, basic science funding supports communities and education. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of the largest sources of research funding, and any researchers whom the NSF supports must allocate some of their funds they receive for ‘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. Thus, NSF-supported research helps in creating 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. International contacts among scientists 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 the 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 foundation 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.