Giving up on Science

I have to admit to you, I’m a bit flabbergasted by the situation we find ourselves in this evening.  Our Congress today failed to pass any measure to prevent the sequester cuts (cuts they themselves imposed last year as a “so harsh we will definitely have to compromise” sort of motivation).  These cuts, which go into effect tomorrow, will be across the board for domestic spending, but what I want to focus on are the cuts to scientific funding.  The NIH and the NSF, two agencies that make up the bulk of the scientific funding in this country, will see nearly 2 billion dollars in combined cuts tomorrow.  If that doesn’t seem so bad, consider those numbers in comparison to the total funding for the NIH, 30.7 billion dollars.  The 1.6 billion coming out of the NIH accounts for 5% of the budget.  5% of that budget accounts for nearly 1000 grants (by the NIH alone) that will be not be awarded or will have part of their funding rescinded this year.  It will lower funding rates to their lowest in nearly thirty years from already drastically low rates.

Scientists across the country are already getting rejected from grants at a rate of about 1 in 6.  Think about that, these aren’t hacks throwing together proposals at the last minute.  We are talking about leaders of their field regularly getting rejected from career sustaining funding at about the batting average of a pathetic baseball player (166).  And it doesn’t just effect the careers of established scientists, it effects the careers of scientists attempting to get tenure, as well as the careers of scientists in training at all levels, especially PhD’s and post-Doctoral Fellows.   Without grants you can’t do experiments.  Without experiments you can’t publish papers.  Without papers you can’t get jobs.  The implications of this  kind of instability are obvious, people are going to leave science in this country, in large numbers, and for no better reason than we lack the political will (or mental capability) to make big-boy decisions.

And it’s not just scientists who are going to be effected.  Scientific discovery  benefits everybody in this country (and across the world).  Not just translational science either.  Every translational drug or device is built upon decades of backbreaking basic science done by researchers who toil away in virtual obscurity.  MRI, the single greatest diagnostic tool the medical world has ever known is built upon centuries of math, physics, and biology research, and decades of computer science research.  None of the people doing this research could have predicted the MRI, but they knew their work was vitally important.  This is exactly the kind of research we are cutting tomorrow.  Until now, we have been the unquestioned leader in this science worldwide.  The Republicans love to blather on about how America is number 1 at everything, here’s a place where we actually are and they are actively sabotaging it.

I’ve been trying to contemplate the stupidity of this event all evening long and I have to admit that I can’t wrap my brain around the type of mentality that can’t see the long term benefits of investing in science as a society.  Short-sighted appeals to fiscal austerity are baseless and confused.  Science funding boosts the economy by enormous amounts when you project out into coming years.  Think of where we’d be today without computers and the internet (government funded research started both of these things).  The tragic thing is that this doesn’t seem to be just stuck to Congress.  We seem to be forgetting as a country what society is, what investment means, what’s actually worth fighting for.  I’m embarrassed by these cuts.  We should all be embarrassed.

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