As a freshman chemistry major at Northwestern University, I've so far been rather dazzled by the scholarship that takes place around me. My professors are the creators of wonder drugs and the authors of textbooks. In other words, the work they do contributes visibly to the progress of the human race. Part of the reason I'll be blogging for Science in Society is that I'm excited by the fact that every day we hear about an amazing new development coming from the scientific community. New breakthroughs are constantly emerging, revolutionary treatments for the ailments that have plagued humanity for centuries are discovered at a prodigious rate, and products making use of recently-developed technologies hit the shelves all the time. The research that goes on at universities such as Northwestern is partially responsible for this type of progress.
However, we must not forget that a huge portion of the money put toward research comes from government coffers. Research universities get much of their funding from government grants, which they in turn spend on teams of scientists that conduct studies and experiments in their respective fields. Today, with the recession at full tilt and new stimulus packages being put into place, what are the consequences of this structure to scientific progress?
According to a recent New York Times article, the new economic stimulus bill will relegate a large amount of capital through governmental divisions like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. These organizations serve as the gateways from the government to the researchers, determining which projects to sponsor.
This calls attention to a few issues. First of all, since the government controls which foundations get funding, they largely determine what areas of science are prioritized more highly. This is a two-faced concept. Investments and research coming from the private sector are generally directed towards the areas that can generate the most profit, whereas the government would more actively promote more basic across-the-board research. This would be good, since a more diverse group of disciplines would be represented. However, federal control of the prioritization of ideas has the potential to neglect several important fields. For example, though it shouldn't have been, embryonic stem cell research was a hotly contested issue, and in the end got only prohibitively restrictive federal funding. Government control allowed the misgivings of one man to get in the way of a potentially revolutionary area of new medical treatments.
Currently, many scientists think the issue is exactly the opposite: that the medical sphere is getting too much attention, and that more grants should be given out to researchers in other realms. The NIH, which is the bureau in charge of doling out health- and medicine-related grants, is receiving most of the money. Health is indeed an important area, but it is understandable that scientists in other fields are indignant at being marginalized.
Either way, though, the stimulus package means increased spending on science, which means more breakthroughs. The passage of the article that struck me the most said that since science had been largely pushed aside for the past six or so years, there are a glut of projects that haven't been funded that can now receive public grant money. Over that time, the NIH alone has had 14,000 submissions that it deemed worthwhile, but lacked the capital to subsidize. With this newfound priority on science, researchers will finally have a chance to develop these projects. Expect advancements.