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Why Should Science Have Special Status in Federal Budget Debates?

Over at USA Today, Dan Vergano’s Science Snapshop blog is one of the top places to track news about science research, science policy, and the connections between science and culture.

Today he spotlights the emerging debate over possible cuts to the budgets of science agencies such as NSF and NIH. Typically, Republicans try to marshal support for cuts by dramatizing what they believe is unworthy research such as a $750,000 grant “to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players.” 

Advocates often respond to Republicans calling scientists “eggheads” by labeling such rhetoric as “anti-intellectual,” as Naomi Oreskes does in the USA Today article.  Others bend the comments of GOP lawmakers to a larger narrative arc about a continued “Republican War on Science.”

But what these tit-for-tat rhetorical salvos obscure is the need for a very important discussion about why science is considered to have special status when it comes to hard decisions in balancing government spending in an era of massive deficits, a historically depressed economy, and a public desperately needing immediate help from social programs. 

Scientists typically claim special status when it comes to these budget debates, but on what grounds is science special while other areas of the budget are not?  Perhaps only defense spending and science spending receive as much special status consideration.  This special status correlates with the high levels of trust and admiration that both institutions have in the public mind. (Surveys show that only the military scores higher in public trust and admiration than scientists, while every other major institution has plummeted in public trust over the last 20 years. See overview.)

Whether or not lawmakers should interfere with peer-review decisions on what research agencies should fund and whether or not science should have steadily consistent if not linear growth in funding are two separate questions.  The former deserves defending and the latter is one that is important for science organizations to join with others in deliberating.

This needed dialogue involves much more than defending a single grant project or the peer-review system for deciding these grants.  Instead it involves creating opportunities for direct public and stakeholder input into where they see specific areas of science spending falling as a priority relative to other programs and portions of the budget. If the public had the opportunity to learn about the different perspectives, discuss them with others, and then voice their preferences, where would they end up?

As we move into a new era of very difficult budget decisions, at what level do scientists use their unrivaled communication capital and perceived special status to join with other organizations, raising questions about continued massive spending on defense while cutting social programs and science funding?  Moreover, within this new era of budget limits, what areas of scientific research should be prioritized in meeting and addressing society’s needs?

And finally, as a matter of social responsibility, do scientists have an obligation to accept that reductions in scientific spending are necessary to preserve social programs?


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