Murphy: The Status of Science

How important is scientific research? Or more to the point, how important is it for the public sector to fund scientific research?

Although it’s a couple years old now, a comprehensive 2015 survey of American adults by the Pew Research Center offered some insights into how people feel about scientific R&D. The data showed:

Perhaps most importantly, 92% of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world, or at least above average.

And don’t think for a moment that scientists are some sort of cheerleaders for the U-S-A! U-S-A! They’re not. Many, many scientists collaborate on research projects with colleagues overseas, and even the ones who don’t attend conferences and seminars well-populated with fellow scientists from around the world.

Collectively, scientists know precisely the status of both basic and applied research in whatever area they’re in as it stands on a global basis.

The vote of confidence in America’s progress and position in the research arena is welcome. But such status is not static. Without continued investment, the reality of where the U.S. stands in relation to groundbreaking research and breakthrough technologies would be jeopardized.

Public vs. Private Funding
Here’s the problem: Although the private sector has a high profile as the driver of exciting new technologies, the reality is that such funders only contribute “a small piece of the overall pie.”

That’s a quote from the current issue of Inside Philanthropy magazine, and it’s true. Although research was historically funded by monied interests — Galileo was sponsored by wealthy patrons, including the pope — the federal investment in research dwarfs that of even the most well-endowed foundations.

A recent survey of members of the Association of American Universities by the Science Philanthropy Alliance estimated that about $1.2 billion in private funding was awarded for basic research in the life sciences, physical sciences and mathematics in 2015, out of a total of about $2.2 billion in private funding for all basic research. According to that survey, about 45% of such funding came from foundations, 22% from corporations and 18% from individual donors.

Meanwhile, total federal funding for R&D at academic institutions has averaged around $40 billion a year.

That funding may be in jeopardy, however, as both the rhetoric and the initial budget proposals from the Trump administration have advocated significant cuts to funding for scientific research. And that’s not a new trend. Between 2011 and 2014, due mainly to sequestration and budget cutting, federal funding for R&D at colleges and universities fell by more than 11%, according to the National Science Foundation.

As the Inside Philanthropy article noted, “Deep, broad cuts to government research spending — in particular, an 18% reduction to the historically sacrosanct NIH budget — signaled an unprecedented assault on research in the United States.”

Is “assault” too loaded a term? Not if you listen to the scientists themselves.

The Lasker Foundation, noted for its commitment to funding basic research, recently assembled 123 of its laureates to sign a full-page ad in The New York Times saying that they are “united in support of sustained, robust funding for biomedical research to improve lives and build a healthier world.”

To be sure, when most people consider the impact of research, the advances of medical and pharmaceutical therapies are most prominent.

Who doesn’t support finding a cure for cancer?

The problem with budget cuts to public-sector science funding, however, is that many of those billions are invested in basic research into such areas as genetics, cellular biology or the workings of endocrine systems at the molecular level. Not only is the process of understanding such intricate, complex systems slow and laborious, but such research doesn’t always lead to applications people can appreciate.

Even worse, the public’s support for agricultural research is far less robust. In fact, a majority of consumers are opposed to the genetic engineering of food crops. Granted, the GE applications to date have been heavily tilted to benefit vendors and growers, not consumers, but the stark reality of having to produce food for the nine billion people expected to be alive and hungry by 2050 makes continued progress in farm and livestock production efficiency a critical priority.

I love asking anti-industry activists, “What do you consider the most promising development in nutrition and food security at this point in time?”

Inevitably, they answer with some reference to the factory food/cultured shamburgers now on the market.

To which I reply, “Isn’t that the very epitome of scientific R&D applied to food production?” Such developments are scientifically parallel to genetic engineering and would never have become commercialized without years of basic research, without dozens of trial-and-error projects and without billions invested in understanding the biological mechanisms of cellular reproduction.

We lionize the value of research when some medical breakthrough allows doctors to save the life of someone we love, but we curse the same process when it’s directed toward producing an increase in the world’s food supply.

The bottom line is that there’s no guarantee that even the most promising scientific research will inevitably lead to direct consumer benefits.

But there’s another guarantee that can be made: If we don’t continue to provide federal funding for scientific research, we will suffer some seriously negative consequences.

You can take that to the bank.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.