An Investment Worth Making

By Beth Walk

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Gregory F. Ball, vice dean for science and research infrastructure, talks about what happens when scientific research goes under the federal budget knife.

As anyone who pays attention to the news knows, the federal government is under budget sequestration. This term refers to a set of automatic cuts in domestic spending that have been implemented because Congress could not agree on specific cuts that would bring the federal budget back in balance. One of the categories subject to these cuts is the “science” budget—broadly defined. The types of science funded by the government are diverse, as are the agencies that manage such support. These agencies include the well-known science supporters such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) as well as other agencies, such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Agriculture. All of these agencies have science budgets that are being cut.

One might think that scientists should be able to reduce their activities by 10 to 15 percent without too much trouble for the good of the country. Certainly if one is managing a major project, he or she can cut back on its scope, just as a business facing a similar cut would do. Why is it then that scientists are complaining loudly about these cuts? And why is the country’s scientific leadership warning about serious consequences if the cuts are maintained?

The Krieger School receives the bulk of its research funding from federal agencies, and those dollars pay for everything from scientists’ salaries to laboratory equipment. Research universities are the scientific engines of the country; they are the laboratories for the nation. Scientists in academia as well as in industry generally collaborate in teams that vary in size depending on the subject being studied and the methods employed. A regular inflow of new talent helps renew these teams and creates dynamism in the group. Group renewal and group progress are maintained with a reasonable level of reliability based on the availability of resources to conduct research.
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The tremendous success of the scientific enterprise in the post-World War II United States has been due in part to the government-university partnership established with the formation of the NSF and other agencies committed to basic science. That provided a rock-solid system for the support of science. This support is a highly competitive system based on peer review that has the goal of supporting the finest science possible. Over the decades of the late 20th century, this system has certainly been rigorous, with a clear set of rules and expectations. It worked because bright, hardworking scientists had a reasonable chance of attaining support to pursue their ideas. The system resulted in a meritocracy in the best sense of the word.

With the imposition of significant cuts, funds are being sequestered independent of scientific achievement, and grant support budgets are getting so tight that many investigators (including those conducting the grant reviews) question the decisions as to who gets support and who does not.

Most scientists pursue their work because they love it, not because they will ever get rich from it, but they want to have at least a hope of financial security. One of the consequences of across-the-board cuts is that such security has diminished or even disappeared in some cases. Young people might think twice before pursuing a career in science. Older investigators will pursue other activities so that they will not have to face financial challenges. American scientists will consider careers abroad, where resources are more plentiful. We will have more difficulty attracting talent from abroad than we have had in the past. For example, several of my undergraduate advisees with potentially promising careers in science are shying away due to “lifestyle” issues as they perceive the stress their lab head is under due to grant uncertainties. A senior scientist told me recently that he is planning to retire in part because the grant process at NIH now seems “random” in how it evaluates his past productivity and new ideas for the future. These trends are a cause for concern.

The United States has been the world leader in science since the end of World War II. This leadership in science has fostered the prosperity of the country, far more than most people realize. Continuing the government-academic partnership is an investment well worth making in order to facilitate a positive future for our country in an increasingly competitive world. It is easy to forget that one of the key ideas behind Google, for example, started as an NSF-supported digital library project. These sorts of discoveries need to continue in the United States to ensure a strong future for our country.

 

  • Donald Keusch

    I fully agree with your point of view.The return on our investment in science and research is our future.
    The programs to be reigned in and revamped are not research and science but rather Social Security and Medicare.These transfer payments are of an order of magnitude greater and need to be subject to fiscal discipline.