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Research Funding is a Drop in the Bucket

I would urge anyone who reads this site to pop over to the Washington Post to read George Will’s column today on government funding for research. It starts off slowly but gets powerful fast. The arguments for why and how investments in basic research drive long term economics growth have all been made before, however one of the lessons I hope everyone takes away from his column is that even cutting research funding COMPLETELY won’t do anything to help with the long term problems in the federal budget:

Annual federal spending on mathematics, the physical sciences and engineering now equals only the increase in health-care costs every nine weeks. [Emphasis retained from the original]

The other statistic that’s going to stick in my head going forward is the percent of people graduating from college in the US who majored in the natural sciences or engineering. Less than one in six. In South Korea, more than 1 in 3 college students graduate with such a major. In China, the statistic is close to 1 in 2.

A lot of the stats he used came from a report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited” which you can download as a free PDF. The original report, which came out five years ago, focused mostly on the physical sciences because at the time funding for biosciences (as a whole) were doing comparatively well after a sustained increase in the budget of the National Institutes of Health*. The updated report makes it clear that since then:

However, shortly after the “doubling” in the health sciences was achieved, the funding for that activity was permitted to erode once again—the exception being a major one-time, two-year funding infusion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Many of the findings of the Academies’ study regarding the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering now pertain to the biological sciences as well.

To really visualize what federal research funding looks like as a part of the federal budget, we turn to PhDComics inspire graph “Two Cents on the Dollar“:

*The National Institutes of Health fund research in some way related to human health or disease. National Science Foundation funded bioscience (where the money that plays for research in the REST of bioscience — including plant biology — comes from) is only 2% as much as the budget of NIH (going of the Jorge Cham’s numbers).

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