Every political season brings about uncertainty regarding the future of policy, funding, and cultural beliefs, and the field of science is no exception. The surprising results this November have led many scientists and other academics to fear for their jobs and research in the coming years.
Part of this stems from a growing trend of members of the public distrusting scientists (discussed here), or the rise of false information regarding serious issues such as climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), vaccinations, etc., that is leading to a disparity between what scientists accept as true and what the public accepts as true. Regardless of which side of an issue you fall on, the consensus seems to be that the public is lacking scientific literacy and scientists are lacking in public outreach (hence the basis for my website).
Some of this disparity develops from public opinion and governmental policy, which can affect what research is deemed important enough to be funded. For example, if an administration denies the existence and causes of climate change, it sends a message to the public that this research and this theory are invalid or unimportant. Not only can this influence state and federal policy (1, 2), but usually means that the field is unlikely to receive state or federal research grant funding. Not only does this prevent a better understanding of scientific issues, like climate change, but it prevents technological advances which improve quality of life and the economy, especially since a good deal of commercial technology companies utilize basic research from academic institutions as publications and raw date are typically publicly available.
It also means that people relying on research grants for salary (like myself, and most other post-doctoral researchers, research associates, graduate and undergraduate researchers, technicians, and some extension outreach personnel) find themselves without jobs. Research-based salary also means that you are limited to a short contract based on the project, anywhere from a month to several years. From experience, a short-term funded position (a year or less) means that you spend a significant amount of time applying to other jobs (a lengthy process) or writing more research grants (an incredibly lengthy process that I’ll discuss in a few months- which take at least 6 – 8 weeks just to write). This can impede on your other job or social responsibilities.
Prior to the jump in federal funding during the Cold War, research was funded by universities themselves and smaller organizations. Most large-scale research grants in the last 50 years, however, have been federally funded. Organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US Department of Defense (DoD), the US Department of Energy (DoE), and others release funding calls on a regular basis. Some funding calls are general and will accept any project type, but many are specific to a particular field or research question (e.g. climate change, cancer, etc.). There are many other organizations or companies which will fund research in a very specific field (such as Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), which funds organic and sustainable agriculture), or provide small fellowships. Philanthropic organizations also fund research, usually targeted towards a specific disease or special interest, and tend to be small but which can help bring funding to obscure fields.
While the total dollar amount of money put into research and development (R & D) in the US has dramatically increased over the last 50 years, the amount the federal government has been putting in has remained relatively stable over the last 10 years. Some cite the availability of other funding sources, such as universities themselves, as making up more of the costs. However, this also comes with a price, as the reduction in state funding has been cited as the cause for rising tuition, and universities are unwilling to reduce tuition even after funding has been reinstated.
The increase in funding has largely been in biomedical and engineering fields, with other areas of research remaining relatively stable.
It’s also important to remember that there are more people going into research jobs now, although this number has been largely stagnant over the last 10 years, and even with the increases in working researchers, only 5.9% of the US workforce was in a STEM field in 2015. Long-term, without a concurrent increase in funding this increase in working researchers can increase job competition and stress.
Laboratory equipment and technology is much more complex and expensive than it was even a decade ago. The percentage of funding going into basic research, from multiple funding sources, has also declined over the last 10 years, which means research projects have to focus on short-term goals instead of long-term, complex projects that gather more data. Basic research aims to understand a system, rather than manipulate it or develop a product, and is the necessary first step which opens up decades of further, more applied, research.
The increase in number of researchers and projects/researcher, coupled with funding stagnation, can massively increase grant competition. Over the past few years, it has been holding steady at 22% for NSF, and 18-25% for NIH, although their data is more complicated because they saw an increase in budget and an increase in total number of PIs funded, yet a reduction in percent of projects funded (indicating that more many more grants were submitted overall). The USDA is also more complicated to track because of the number of grant programs within the USDA, each of which put forward different targeted grant funding calls each year. In 2013, USDA AFRI had a 10% funding success rate. Manually checking grant funding calls reveals grant-specific success rates, upwards of 30% funding success; however, many of these grants with a higher rate of success also require you to match their funding with funding from another source. So if you have a 1/3 chance of getting that USDA grant, and a 1/5 chance of getting a matching NIH grant, your actual chances of getting all that funding are 1/3 x 1/5 = 1/15.
Taken altogether, the clearest trend regarding research in the US is that it’s an integral part to our way of life and it’s not going anywhere. Whatever your political views, it’s important that scientists, citizens, and politicians come together across the aisle to do what’s best for the future of the US, and that’s going to necessitate a strong support of scientific work.