Standing Up For Basic Research

I don’t like getting drawn into partisan fights when it comes to science, because federally funded research has generally had broad bipartisan support in Congress for more than a half-century. But there is no point in denying that the funding bill that just passed the House is a blatantly partisan effort by GOP leaders to impose their political ideologies — which include climate change skepticism — on our research agenda.

As I discuss in my recent Pacific Standard column, curiosity, and not partisanship should drive our scientific agenda when it comes to basic research. That’s generally been the rule at our basic science agencies, and the current leadership of the House of Representatives doesn’t like it.

This week, the House passed a highly partisan funding bill that would dramatically and disastrously reshape our science agencies along the lines of GOP preferences. Among the mischief attempted by these lawmakers is an push to slash funding for earth sciences at NASA and the NSF, in a poorly disguised effort to dial back climate change research. Representative Bill Foster (D-IL), a physicist, put it best: this bill reflects “the majority’s efforts to impose their own personal beliefs and ideologies on the process of scientific discovery.”

Fortunately, the White House has issued a veto threat. And its Office of Science and Technology Policy is pushing back against the GOP leadership’s misleading claims that they’re just trying to get the NSF and NASA to focus on “core science” or research that’s “in the national interest.” The OSTP has started a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #BasicResearch:

The Value of Basic Research

People’s appreciation of game-changing new technologies frequently ignores the long, often twisting path that transforms an idea from fundamental discovery to practical application. Those who pay for the national research agenda may not always be aware of the early and fundamental work that makes today’s technologies possible…

But basic science has long been under fire. Between 1975 and 1987, the “Golden Fleece Award” was established and bestowed upon projects they deemed “the biggest, most ridiculous or most ironic example of government spending or waste.” Often, the “winners” were Federally funded scientific research projects taken out of context and cited without explanation…

The heyday of the Golden Fleece Award has passed, but misunderstanding of the value of basic research and its ties to valuable applications, products, and knowledge survives today…

The road to many of the next great scientific or technological advances will start with basic science. I encourage you to share your favorite examples of basic research that led to unexpected insights or game changing applications on social media using #BasicResearch.

Over at Pacific Standard, I review one example of how this plays out: CRISPR/Cas9 editing, a technology that is quickly becoming as important as other key biotechnologies like restriction enzymes, PCR, GFP, and high-throughput sequencing. This game-changing invention came from incredibly obscure origins.

The U.S. has been deliberately investing basic research for a half century for a good reason: it works. The payoff is enormous. And that means, as I wrote, “Letting scientists, rather than politicians, define important scientific questions is definitely in our national interest.”

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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