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Ethics, Science Funding, and the Fiscal Cliff

Minority Leader McConnell SOURCE: (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, center, is a key player in the ongoing efforts in Washington to negotiate a legislative solution to balance the budget.

With the fiscal cliff can kicked only two months down the road, research funding is in trouble—along with science jobs, science education, science progress, and the contributions of U.S. science to the health of the nation and the world. But you might not know it listening to the mainstream media.

Indeed, one of the worst shortcomings of most political coverage is the surrender to the fetish of the “hot topic.” A hot topic is one of those important and controversial issues about which most people have a strong opinion, at least for a while.

This preoccupation comes at a high price: It fosters the neglect of issues that are equally important but do not inflame people’s passions as much as money, abortion, or, this month, gun control.

Sadly, neither science policy nor federal support for research is a hot topic, even with deep and unexplained budget cuts to science looming. Indeed, from the presidential debates to the postelection brawl over taxes and spending, these critical issues are not even lukewarm topics. This is a pity because scientific research has improved lives, reduced disparities, and fostered the growth of knowledge and jobs. Americans should care about science because it is economically unwise and ethically irresponsible not to.

By some estimates, science and technology contribute to more than half of the U.S. economy. So a good citizen should have cared about candidates’ positions on government support for science, and he or she should now be worried sick about what will happen if there is not a comprehensive budget compromise come March.

President Barack Obama got off to a good start four years ago, proposing research and development budget increases and the doubling of budgets for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science—three of the most important agencies funding fundamental science research. It didn’t work out as planned, however. Current budgets are flat and, if sequestration kicks in, science research will take it on the chin: $2.5 billion will be cut from the National Institutes of Health alone, according to an Office of Management and Budget Report on the Sequestration.

That report includes the observation that, “Sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument. It is not the responsible way for our Nation to achieve deficit reduction.”

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, non-defense research and development spending will stay below White House budget goals through 2017. If sequestration cuts are triggered on January 1, investments in science could fall another 8 percent to 9 percent—55 percent below President Obama’s target.

In a letter last month to the president and Congress, the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote:

Almost every national priority—from health and defense, agriculture and conservation, to hazards and natural disasters—relies on science and engineering. Sequestration threatens all these priorities, by requiring up to $12 billion in R&D funding cuts annually across defense and nondefense programs over the next decade.

Research funding is therefore in deep trouble. But not many know it because this is about science and statistics—subjects in which U.S. citizens and students are already lacking and the news media is perennially ill-equipped and disinclined to analyze. Worse, nearly $2 billion would be cut from key education programs. The jousting over entitlement programs such as Medicare takes up so much bandwidth that comparatively meager investments in science, which are no less critical to our future, are orphaned.

This point is neither political nor partisan. Republican and Democratic legislators alike have long recognized the importance of research and development to national well-being and saluted the significance of peer-reviewed federal funding to academic institutions. But proselytizing from extreme conservative voices—ideologues who want to teach creationism in schools, ban stem cell research, and privatize chunks of the nation’s research mission—constitutes a source of major concern to centrists and others who value a strong and stable research infrastructure that does not ebb and flow with the political tide. Perhaps equally dangerous, and at least as dispiriting, are supporters of science who don’t stand up for such vital investments.

Research universities in Florida, where I work, and others around the country are struggling to compete for shrinking shares of federal dollars. Already, nearly four out of five promising science project proposals are not funded, and that figure would drop to five out of six if the automatic budget cuts take place. Even now, worthy science is not being funded, and researchers spend far too much of their time seeking funding rather than doing science. The effect is not one of improved function through Darwinian competition, but a Hunger Games-style win-or-die combat. This is not a policy that fosters a stable scientific infrastructure.

While there remain many and juicy debates about, for instance, investments in basic research versus the commercialization of that research, there is no good argument for the current death-by-a-thousand-cuts antipolicy that is causing the nation’s researchers to have panic attacks. The president’s fiscal year 2013 budget would:

  • Sustain and create jobs for more rising scientists and engineers
  • Improve competitiveness in a world in which other countries do not share our peculiar political paralysis about the proper role of government
  • Maintain the intellectual edge we need to defeat cancer, explore new energy sources, and teach us about the Earth and its place in the universe

It is an old rule of ethics that if one can effect positive change then one ought to do so. Indeed, failure to do so is blameworthy. It is therefore wrong not to nurture more and better science. Put differently, there is an ethical imperative to explore, to discover, and to apply discoveries to the improvement of the human condition.

Science funding has not yet risen to the level of a hot topic, but now, while the president and Congress continue to wrestle over our nation’s budgetary priorities, would be a good time to remember its importance to the nation.

Kenneth W. Goodman directs the University of Miami’s Bioethics Program.

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