One of National Public Radio’s news features this morning was a “well-balanced” report on the frequent attacks on government support of scientific research that takes the form of a denunciation of what on the surface appears to be a stupid or meaningless study.
The NPR reporter, Nell Greenfieldboyce, presented several examples of right-wing politicians or associations condemning a specific project because of the ostensible absurdity of the topic: shrimp on treadmills; link of the size of a man’s penis size to the risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases; toenail exposure to nicotine.
In all cases, NPR showed that the critic had overblown the example by taking it out context, in two ways: 1) how the research topic related to solving problems; 2) the cost of the studies (always much less than the number the right-winger had thrown around). In each case, the story included the reply of the conservative accused of taking things out of context. And in each case, before going on a diatribe against government waste, the right-winger shamelessly pointed out that he/she/it never said that the absurd study represented the total cost of the broader grant whose cost he/she/it had mentioned.
For example, it turned out that the shrimp on a treadmill study cost about $1,000, although part of a $500,000 grant to study how shrimp respond to changes in water quality. A spokesperson for the right-winger in this case, Senator Tom Coburn, responds by saying, “our report never claimed all the money was spent on shrimp on a treadmill.”
So what NPR presents is a “he said she said” in which science gets the win on points.
But what NPR doesn‘t address is the broader topic of the value of government support of scientific research. The reporter lets the other side moan on about government waste when so many people are out of work. For example, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition angrily condemns the National Institutes of Health for funding the toenail to nicotine study (part of a larger effort to improve prediction of lung cancer) with these words, “They used recovery money, money that was meant to more or less stimulate the economy.”
The hidden assumption behind both the criticism of individual projects and of government research in general is that it’s a waste of money that doesn’t help the economy.
But in fact, government funded scientific research is a major creator of jobs, in two ways:
- Government support of scientific research creates jobs immediately. Universities and research institutes hire scientists, engineers, technicians and administrators to conduct the research, all relatively high-paying jobs. Those jobs have as much of a trickledown effect on the economy as most service and many manufacturing jobs. For example, most research needs sophisticated equipment, the manufacture and sales of which creates additional jobs.
- Government support of scientific research creates jobs in the future. The results of scientific research create new products, technologies and even industries that create many future jobs, sometimes millions of them. For example, the shrimp study will likely have industrial applications. Personal computers, airplanes, the Internet, contemporary agriculture (the good and the bad) and artificial fabrics are some of the industries and products that would not exist if the government had not supported basic research. Each of these industries account for millions of jobs.
Governments have supported scientific research since the time of Alexander the Great, who commissioned scientists to tag along after his marauding armies to study the lands he subdued. The signers of the Constitution affirmed the role of the government to support scientific research by mandating that the federal government conduct the national demographic study we call a census every 10 years.
When we cut government support of research, we in effect eat our future in the same way that we eat our future when we cut funds for public education. In both cases, we choose not to make the investment in knowledge and people that our future economy needs. In the current situation, the “we” eating our future are the wealthy who have enjoyed more than 30 years of historically low taxes on their income and wealth.
Instead of cutting scientific research funds, we should double or even triple the amount of money we make available for research and technology transfer.
We should also realize that scientific research helps companies before it helps individuals, helps companies more than it helps individuals, and helps the company executives and owners far more than it helps most of the other employees. We should make sure that those who benefit the most pay the most to support scientific research. Thus, as with so much that we must change to fix our struggling economy and prepare for a future threatened by diminished natural resources and global warming, bringing support of government research to appropriate levels comes down to reinstituting the equitable tax system we had in the 50’s, 60’s and most of the 70’s. In other words, we have to raise taxes on the wealthy.