Massive cuts to federal funding of science research? Not really such a great idea.
For about a decade, stagnant funding at the NIH was considered a serious impediment to scientific progress. Now, scientists say they are facing something much worse.
I asked more than a dozen scientists—across a wide range of disciplines, with affiliations to private schools, public schools, and private foundations—and their concern about the proposed budget was resounding. The consequences of such a dramatic reduction in public spending on science and medicine would be deadly, they told me. More than one person said that losing public funding on this scale would dramatically lower the country’s global scientific standing. One doctor said he believed Trump’s proposal, if passed, would set off a lost generation in American science.
But we’ll have a much much much bigger military than anyone else. That’s all that counts, right? Power, force, strength, violence?
And what happens to all the crucial basic science without billionaire backing—the kind of research with wide-ranging applications that can dramatically enhance human understanding of the world? NIH funding is spread across all disciplines, several scientists reminded me, whereas private funding tends to be driven by the personal preferences of investors.
[I]n a privately-funded system, investor interest dictates the kind of science that’s pursued in the first place.
“Put simply, privatization will mean that more ‘sexy,’ ‘hot’ science will be funded, and we will miss important discoveries since most breakthroughs are based on years and decades of baby steps,” said Kelly Cosgrove, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University. “The hare will win, the tortoise will lose, and America will not be scientifically great.”
America’s enduring scientific greatness rests largely on the scientists of the future. And relying on private funding poses an additional problem for supporting people early in their careers. The squeeze on public funding in recent years has posed a similar concern, as young scientists are getting a smaller share of key publicly-funded research grants, according to a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1983, about 18 percent of scientists who received the NIH’s leading research grant were 36 years old or younger. In 2010, just 3 percent of them were. Today, more than twice as many such grants go to scientists who are over 65 years old compared with people under 36—a reversal from just 15 years ago, according to the report.
The proposed NIH cuts “would bring American biomedical science to a halt and forever shut out a generation of young scientists,” said Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “It would take a decade for us to recover and move the world’s center of science to the U.S. from China, Germany, and Singapore, where investments are now robust.”
But we’ll always have college football.