Shrinking the role of government is hurting science

Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., released his 2014 Wastebook, an annual report on government spending that Coburn deems wasteful, largely because, on the surface, the projects sound like silly ways to spend federal dollars. This year’s version—the last due to Coburn’s retirement at the adjournment of this Congress—follows a rather typical path of criticizing things like dubiously named research grants funded by the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. We in the scientific community frequently find ourselves playing “whack-a-mole” in the days following releases of reports like this, issuing statements explaining why a grant on say, rabbit massages, is important. We’ve become quite good at it as a community, so good that a coalition of science organizations has an annual event of their own, the Golden Goose Awards. These awards celebrate research that demonstrates the benefits to human health and the economy from federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure or frivolous studies that led to major scientific breakthroughs and significantly impacted society.

Criticism of science funding doesn’t start and stop with Coburn. Last week, during the height of the Ebola fever that gripped the nation’s attention, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., chose to instead criticize the NIH’s research on origami condoms. Plenty of media outlets and science advocates countered by highlighting the importance of this technology. Yet the critiques continue.

I find myself often wondering, “why.” Why is it that some in Congress seem to take such joy in criticizing peer reviewed science? Especially when, time-after-time, such criticisms often indicate more of a lack of understanding of the science behind the grant, then an actual example of government waste, fraud or abusive spending? The only answer I can come up with is that some in Congress simply hate the size of the federal government.

Today, some of these concerns were confirmed. In a memo to House Republicans, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., writes about addressing issues facing the next Congress. “The government’s role must be measured, limited in its ambitions,” McCarthy writes. So, it would appear that cutting budgets is no longer occurring because it is fiscally responsible. No, it is happening because it is politically expedient. The current policy in the House is that cuts will continue until the government is limited to their liking, even if the impact hurts Americans.

The real attack being launched by Congress is an attack of federal spending on non-defense programs, and the battle has been being waged for nearly 35 years.

As a share of our nation’s overall economy, or gross domestic product, non-defense discretionary spending has been at or below the historical average since the early 1980s. Put another way, fiscal policies in Washington have eroded federal investments in programs to improve the quality of life and well-being of Americans. This slow erosion has become a matter of fact for scientific research programs, and scientists across the nation have become quite skilled at doing more with less. Look at the breakthroughs the NIH had made in diseases like heart disease and some cancers, despite their lowering success rates for grants, and you’ll see evidence of that. However, lately, it seems the cuts have gone too far, cut too deep and we’re no longer able to tread water.

Sequestration crushed many NDD programs. Multiple reports, including NDD United’s Faces of Austerity, the Coalition for Health Funding’s Faces of Austerity 2.0 and ASBMB’s Unlimited Potential Vanishing Opportunity, support this. What we learned while writing our report was shocking. If the goal of budget cuts is to cripple the nation’s scientific enterprise, well, Congress should go ahead and hang their “Mission Accomplished” banner. Some critical statistics from that report include:

  • More than two thirds of survey respondents do not have the funds to expand their research operations, postponing important scientific advances in all fields.
  • Research jobs have been lost. Nearly half of survey respondents have laid off researchers, and 55 percent have a colleague who has lost his/her job.
  • An overwhelming majority of scientists in all fields believes the U.S. has lost its position as the global leader in scientific research.
  • Private investment in academic research has been feeble. Only two percent of survey respondents have been able to find private funds to make up for those lost from federal grants.

Today, NDD spending as a percentage of GDP is approximately 3.4 percent. This is estimated to fall to 3.3 percent by next year. Should austerity continue through 2023 as is planned, NDD spending as a percent of GDP will be roughly 2.6 percent, the lowest level on record since 1962. These fiscal policies are in place today, and the cuts are already expected. The pace for finding cures and treatments has already been slowed by budget cuts, and maintaining austerity programs will not cause the pace to accelerate.

As a community, we must stop playing the whack-a-mole game and start fighting for fiscal policy that is healthy for all core federal programs. When wasteful spending is identified in programs we support, we should be honest in our assessment and propose fixes (hint, the Wastebook doesn’t do that). When we can identify efficiencies that can improve the funding environment without the need for increased appropriations, we should highlight these as well. But we should also loudly tell the stories of what will result from an imbalanced fiscal policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *