Is science of value?
I had hoped that it would be a bit of cheery news that dragged me out of retirement from this blog to subject you to another edition of frameshifts. Alas, no. Instead it is the war on science that compels me again to set electrons to screen. The narrative that has become popular in some circles is that research is the province of pointy-headed intellectuals in a few left-wing college towns. And, continuing this logic, if these elite eggheads get a few less tax dollars with which to putter and pontificate, nobody will be any poorer. Furthermore, if the findings and advice of scientists are ignored, well—why should a scientist’s version of facts be accepted any more than anybody else’s? We, as practitioners of the scientific profession, need to combat this narrative.
Let’s take these points in turn. Where is science carried out in this country, and who does it? Americans are hardly aware of the impact or import of scientific research, even when it’s going on right next door. When Research!America asked if “medical research in the U.S. is conducted in all 50 states,” a mere 21% of American adults said “Yes” (the most frequent response, from half of those polled: “Not sure”).1
Research goes on throughout the country. Consider a state—any state; let’s say Georgia. In 2015, it received more than $500 million in NIH funding, more than $150 million from the NSF, more than $40 million from Department of Agriculture research funding, and nearly $10 million from the Office of Science at the Department of Energy.2 From the NIH alone, Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Georgia Regents (now Augusta), Morehouse and the University of Georgia each brought in more than $20 million—some of these way more. 3
Who benefits from this scientific activity in Georgia? It’s estimated that NIH funds directly support more than 10,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in economic activity in Georgia 4. Add to that number more than 25,000 people in Georgia who work in the biopharmaceutical industry (many of these folks likely trained in nearby research universities). And I’d venture to guess that all this economic activity doesn’t account for the coffee shops, daycare centers, gyms, take-out restaurants and other businesses that sprout up next to major medical centers and biotech companies.
Will it matter much if support for research is cut—to the tune of about 20% (or even more) at NIH, DOE, EPA and other agencies that fund science? Let’s play out the President’s plan that would enact this level of budget cuts. Many labs will close down, in Georgia—in cities like Atlanta, Athens and Augusta—and in other states, in cities like Indianapolis IN ($133 million from the NIH), Lexington KY ($102 million), and Columbia MO ($42 million). It seems certain that scientists in all 50 states will lose jobs.
But beyond the effect on employment, many of the sensational research findings routinely discovered in American labs, and that all Americans—whose tax dollars support these labs—are rightly proud of, will instead occur in Europe, China, Japan and elsewhere. Those findings in labs far from our shores will spawn the patents and intellectual know-how that lead to new industries with their well-paying jobs, jobs created in perhaps Saskatoon, or in Seoul, or in Sydney, rather than in any American city. Perhaps the hub of some future industry built on the results from basic research ends up in Stockholm or Amsterdam, instead of in our next Silicon Valley.
How will the young, smart, creative Americans who populate our graduate and postdoc programs, and the many bright international scholars who contribute to our research teams, respond to these Federal cuts? Seeing the low priority that this country places on science, talented Americans will seek alternative careers with better long-term prospects; scientists in other countries will choose to train elsewhere rather than the United States.
Will there be ramifications if scientific views are ignored? The ease by which research funding provides such a convenient target for reducing Federal spending may be a result of our country’s diminished scientific literacy and loss of respect for expertise. Ultimately, the consequence of the notion that all viewpoints are equally valid is decision-making that defies the overwhelming consensus of scientific data. Recent actions of the President to weaken fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and to eliminate plans to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants fit neatly into the myth that there is no scientific consensus about human-caused climate change. The result will be water that is dirtier, air that is smoggier, a planet that warms ever faster. Choosing an EPA head who thinks that carbon dioxide does not contribute to global warming will not convince Mother Nature to change her laws.
All of us need to stand together for science and make our voices heard. We need to contact our local members of Congress, write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, talk to our friends and neighbors. And join with me and scientists around the country in the March for Science on April 22nd, for which the GSA is a sponsor. The future of our profession, the prosperity of our nation, and the health of our planet depend on our actions.