When You Cut Science Programs, Everyone Suffers. Including You.
With the Trump budget coming for American science and technology, a lot of people may be wondering why cutting government spending on research and experimental engineering at a federal level is such a big deal. Well, it really is because these programs are foundational to having advanced, prosperous economies now and in the future. We’re relying on the labs to keep working every day to prepare for the future.
Without a pipeline of engineers and scientists steadily tackling big ideas in government labs, the economy will suffer, though it won’t be obvious as to why. Fewer truly new products will show up on the shelf, fewer drugs will be available to doctors, and more people will die as important questions in medicine go unanswered because there’s no one around to collect the data and run the necessary experiments.
To explain why, and to tackle some common questions floating around social media when a cut for space exploration, medical research, or bleeding edge program is announced, here’s the Politech Q&A about science funding for those who generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how the cool stuff you read in Popular Science or Gizmodo is actually made possible.
How much do we spend on science and space in the U.S.?
Roughly $30 billion per year. This includes everything from space probes, to cancer research, to particle colliders. It’s just over 1% of the budget and the return on investment it provides is phenomenal. Slashing it further when we’re competing in a more interconnected and globalized world is like starving the goose laying golden eggs while demanding it lays more. Trying to justify these cuts as a way to reduce the national debt, which politicians so often do, is like saying you can make a dent in your new mortgage with spare change you find rattling around in your car’s cupholder. It defies both common sense and basic mathematics.
Wait, that’s it? Aren’t you missing something?
No, that’s all. Americans frequently think we spend a quarter of our budget on NASA and another quarter on foreign aid. In reality, we spend 0.58% of the budget on space and around 1% on aid. Both programs result in further commercially viable and profitable partnerships; aid allows for more trade deals that create jobs, while NASA creates new materials useful for a lot of businesses’ new lines of products and helps civilian implementation. Think of swords-to-plowshares only the sword is a rocket and the plowshare is a new computer, camera, or safety feature in your car.
But why are we funding science that doesn’t succeed in its goals?
Because that’s simply not how science works. Businesses have to succeed or abandon ship quickly because if they keep failing, they can’t bring a product to market and make money. Scientists, on the other hand, often don’t know if what they’re trying to do is even possible. If it is, fantastic. If it’s not, it’s disappointing, but they can learn from their failure and design a new, more successful experiment, or find out why what they wanted to do simply won’t work and move on to another approach to solve the problem.
When you’re paying for science, you’re paying for knowledge of what is and isn’t possible, why it’s that way, and how it might be used. It’s a long, slow grind to get to the bottom of things and there’s no telling when it may pay off. There were batteries in ancient Baghdad and toy steam engines in the Roman Empire. It took us 2,000 years to figure out how to use them and ignite the Industrial Revolution, enabling the explosion of knowledge we use every day for safer, longer, more comfortable lives.
Who knows, we might have a seemingly inconsequential lab result sitting in someone’s files that will one day be responsible for a warp drive, or a space habitat that can maintain itself indefinitely, enabling cities among the stars. The more we ultimately know, even if it’s not immediately useful, the more chances we create for that knowledge to pay off. It’s how the modern world was built after all. And this is ultimately what you get with science: the tools to build a newer, better world for yourself and your descendants.
Can’t states come in with more funding if federal money is cut?
That depends largely on the state. States with healthier balance sheets can and do step in to prop up labs. Many other states either can’t afford to, of if they can but don’t, simply refuse to prioritize science and technology to get their local programs properly funded. Federal cash is supposed to smooth out the ebbs and flows of local funding and allow research to take place all over the nation, not just in states where it’s considered a priority, not some luxury that’s often put on the back burner.
Why don’t academics and research scientists just get corporate jobs?
Because those corporate jobs are lacking. Businesses fund what’s profitable while governments fund what’s necessary but can’t fit in a 3 to 5 year plan to make a return on investment. Companies generally have a small staff which takes breakthroughs in science and technology and tries to apply them to an existing product line, or create a new one. That’s what they pay for, not the kind of pure, curiosity driven science that produces said breakthroughs. So losing government funded research jobs also means losing corporate jobs, as fewer and fewer possible new ideas come down the pipeline.
Why don’t companies partner with government agencies and labs to help them work more effectively and efficiently?
Actually, they already do. Large corporations invest billions to build up on research they find highly useful. For example, SpaceX is trying to partner with NASA to replace their launch systems, though there are complicated politics involved there. Pharmaceutical companies work with colleges when they need to find new ways of treating complex diseases or test an idea. All that collaboration is made possible thanks to government funding because companies don’t have to risk huge sums of money chasing every idea.
However, there’s a downside. Corporate research is not objective. It has little interest in results that aren’t good for PR or force them to abandon a billion dollar investment. Too much corporate influence can damage research, if not bury it despite its important to the public’s health and safety. Just consider the studies surrounding the presence of sugar in everything we eat. This is a prime example where maintaining the researchers’ independence from very large corporate interests failed despite being critical.
What’s the worst case scenario if we keep cutting science funding?
In the short term, higher unemployment and brain drain as fewer new ideas make it into the commercial space and scientists and engineers take jobs in other nations that actually want them. Similar to how the wealthy can often get very permissive visas in other nations by investing in new business ventures that will create jobs, STEM experts can get priority when moving to find a new lab to join, depending on their area of expertise. Medicine and artificial intelligence are particularly prized skill areas.
In the medium term, ancillary jobs that depend on new ideas coming out of labs will start to dry up. Everyone from junior coders and technicians, to cafeteria workers and janitorial staff may be cut due to a lack of work and revenue to keep them. Labs will start shutting down completely or moving abroad as brain drain accelerates. Large companies may try to pick up some of the slack, but this will depend on how their shareholders feel about their spending over the long term and what science they should fund.
Over the long term, innovation would be something licensed and imported from abroad as Americans stop being net exporters of knowledge and tech, and become net consumers. One can imagine France, Germany, Australia, and China leading the way in biomedical science, computing, and cutting edge civilian engineering. The United States will more than likely maintain an iron grip on technical military superiority, but that too will become harder as there are fewer and fewer scientists and engineers available for hire. It’s just not going to be a viable career choice anymore.
All right, I’m sufficiently scared. What do I do about this?
Call, write, tweet, and otherwise message your elected representatives not to go along with these cuts. Tell them what you learned and how not having a set of robust R&D labs across the nation ultimately means fewer jobs and the loss of talent to other countries. Warn them that you can’t lead the world by maintaining a large military force and enough banks, you must innovate to stay ahead of your global competition and you can only do that if you put in the time, money, and experts. Without accumulating knowledge, inspiring more scientists and engineers, and giving them the resources they need to do their work, we will never maintain our leadership.
No one is entitled to remain the innovation engine for the global economy and human advancement. It’s something you have to fight for, and if we sit back and decide it’s not a task important enough for us to pursue, plenty of other nations are more than willing to step up and take this role from us. And a while lot of neglected experts will be happy to take their job offers, and keep doing what they dedicated their lives to overseas. Surely that’s not the kind of future our elected leaders want, is it?