Back To The Future: Funding Science Makes Sense

“The best idea humans have ever had.”

Credit: Ewa Krawczyk, National Cancer Institute Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, National Institutes of Health.

The Best Idea Humans Have Ever Had

Science is looking a little retro these days.

The recent withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, signed by nearly 200 other countries, walks us all backward into a time where knowledge and facts are up for debate.

For salvation, we may need to look backward as well — to a guy you might remember from TV in the 1990s. A documentary about “Bill Nye, the Science Guy” will be screened this weekend at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.

Nye once called science “the best idea humans have ever had.” The Science Guy might agree that we need to double down on America’s investment in science, in all its forms.

The proposed budget that the White House sent to Congress last month slashes our national commitment to science. This is exactly the wrong direction to go.

Federally funded science research makes new discoveries that make the world a better place. It creates jobs and employs thousands of researchers dedicated to understanding how things work. And it makes a clear statement that America values knowledge, learning, and understanding.

Research agencies that very obviously shouldn’t be cut include the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, to which the president has proposed a potential 21 percent cut.

The plural “Institutes” refers to the several different organizations that make up NIH, including the National Cancer Institute. The American Cancer Society reports that half of men and one-third of women will get cancer in their lifetimes — so it’s pretty clear there will be widespread support for increasing, not cutting, NIH funding.

Another one that urgently needs our support is the NSF, which faces a proposed 9 percent cut. Its budget, at $7.5 billion, is much smaller than the NIH’s $32 billion.

The NSF’s fact sheet lists just a few of the technologies we now benefit from that originated in NSF-supported research — from Doppler radar to the Internet, from the bar code to the MRI. Imagine just for a minute your life without one or more of those technologies, and you’re imagining a not very great America.

If you’re picturing Bunsen Honeydew and Beeker from the Muppet Show right now, know that science isn’t always done in a lab. There are a lot of different ways of answering questions that are science by another name, and they need support too.

As an anthropologist and social scientist, I believe that science can be boiled down to a few key things: Figuring out a good question to ask, collecting evidence that will help you answer it, and making sense of that evidence to see what it tells you.

Even though my anthropological evidence comes from asking people about what they think and paying attention to what they do, instead of experimenting in a controlled laboratory setting, it’s still based on observations of reality in the world.

Here’s why we urgently need social science. NSF-supported social scientists Susan Weller and Roberta Baer interviewed people who did not comply with an order to evacuate during a hurricane. Understanding the barriers to evacuation, and working to reduce them in the future, makes us more prepared to face disasters like severe weather, and contributes to public safety.

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And research by a team of NIH-supported behavioral scientists resulted in the landmark discovery that medication is less effective than small changes in diet and physical activity in reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which affects over 25 million Americans. This was a significant contribution to public health.

These scientists weren’t working in labs — their “free range science” took them to people’s homes and workplaces to understand the everyday pressures and activities that shape our lives. And understanding is the first step to making things a bit greater.

The NSF’s motto is “Where Discoveries Begin.” The NIH’s motto is “Turning Discovery Into Health.” From the evidence in this proposed budget, we might infer that the president’s motto is “Discovery is Fake News.”

We need to do better.

Your elected officials have just headed back to work. It’s the right time to call them and urge them to keep standing up for science in all its forms.

There is already evidence that Congress is far more committed to science than the president. Earlier in May, when they made a budget deal to fund the government through September, they flouted the White House by including a $2 billion (6 percent) funding increase for the National Institutes of Health, and a more modest $8 million (0.1 percent) increase for the National Science Foundation.

That’s smart leadership, and it’s a real step in the right direction. Now they need to make those increases permanent, and not give into President Donald Trump’s foolhardy proposal.

The NSF and the NIH deserve huge raises, not cuts, for the work they are supporting.

It’s the only route to making this country great. And not doing so is a path to irrelevance, ignorance, and suffering.

Originally published at

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