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Inequality

Why Research Funding Matters for the Country

Research & Commentary
October 22, 2014

by Sheila Kennedy

Declining public investment in basic scientific research undermines the nation’s future. 

By Sheila Suess Kennedy

I recently came across a newspaper clipping about a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studied strains of the Ebola virus. Just when he and his team had created a potential vaccine, the researcher’s funding was terminated.

Dwindling government resources for research signals a nation in decline.

Dwindling government resources for scientific research signals a nation in decline.

As the paper reported:

“The experiments demonstrated the vaccine, when administered in two doses, is effective even against the most deadly Ebola strains. That’s when the money ran out…[the researcher] could not proceed with tests to determine whether the vaccine regimen might work with humans.”

Why was funding pulled? Perhaps those parceling out ever-shrinking research funds figured that Ebola was too abstract an issue–that scarce funds should support research with more immediate application. Or, perhaps the funders determined that since Americans weren’t the ones getting Ebola, the research wasn’t that important.

Oops.

Researchers in all areas, including but not limited to the sciences, have raised concerns over dwindling government resources available for both basic and applied research. This lack of concern for investing in our future, like our disinclination to maintain and improve our basic infrastructure, signals a nation in decline. [pullquote] It is impossible to list all of the ways our infatuation with frugality is undermining the country’s future. [/pullquote]

It is impossible to list all of the ways in which our current infatuation with “frugality” is undermining the country’s future. Congress’ refusal to emulate Franklin Delano Roosevelt by putting Americans to work repairing our decaying railroads, roads and bridges may be the most obvious. Neglect of the nation’s electrical grid, resistance to the development of new sources of clean energy—the list goes on. These are not “make work” projects, and they don’t simply improve the quality of our communal lives. Attention to the maintenance and improvement of our infrastructure is critical to the private sector’s ability to do business—to power industry and move goods from place to place. The ability to do business, in turn, is critical to job creation.

The continued, relentless attack on funding for basic scientific research is equally short-sighted. As Elizabeth Padilla-Crespo recently pointed out, the United States “cannot afford to stop investment in research that will lead to innovation and discovery.” [pullquote] While $2,000 per person per year goes to our military, only $20 per person per year goes to the National Science Foundation. [/pullquote] Padilla-Crespo further noted that we certainly should not cut spending on important academic research when only “$20 per year per person goes to the National Science Foundation” compared to a whopping “$2,000 per year per person to our military.”

Aside from these facts, there is something about basic scientific research that makes us more human, that speaks to that little voice inside of us we embraced as children: Mom, why is the sky blue? Dad, why is sea-water salty? Asking questions like these makes us appreciative of our surroundings and aware of the world we live in.

Last April, on the 150th anniversary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, President Obama alluded to this point. [pullquote] There is something about basic scientific research that makes us more human. [/pullquote] While reaffirming the need to invest in research to boost our economy, he noted that our nation should engage in research because “that’s who we are… it’s what makes us special and ultimately what makes life worth living.”

There is an old adage: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Whether that is the meaning of life may be up for debate–but concern for the future and the willingness to invest in it must be a central precept for any nation that wishes to be–or remain–great.

Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Business Journal and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net

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