S.O.S. (Save Our Scientists)

Could we jump-start the US economy by fueling scientific research? (via Scientific American)

By Aditya Nair

The United States Government is currently $11.6 trillion in debt. That’s $36,653 per citizen, and represents more than a fifth of the debt held by every government in the entire world combined. Congress and the President constantly struggle to agree to even approve enough funding to prevent default or maintain government operations. This is a crisis, and a solution needs to be found.

In light of this, the following statement may be, for many, difficult to stomach: The United States Government should maintain or expand funding for basic and applied science research.

In 1987, The US Department of Health and Energy submitted a budget involving the initial funding for an ambitious, collaborative, government-sponsored research project that captured the imaginations of both the public and the scientific community: The Human Genome Project (HGP). The goal was to determine the map every gene in the human genome, and determine the base pair sequence of each of those genes.

The project was slated to take 15 years and start in 1990. In 2003, two years ahead of schedule, the sequencing of the human genome was declared essentially complete.

The total cost of the project through its completion was $3.8 billion, with the work being done primarily in US universities and research institutions, but also involving significant scientific collaborations with researchers in the UK, Japan, Australia, France, and other countries.

Scientifically, the project is invaluable, as it presents us with a history of our species’ journey through billions of years of evolution and an indexed encyclopedia for every single biological process in our human bodies. The human impact of this investment can’t be measured. There are simply too many breakthroughs in medicine brought about by this technology to enumerate. Highlights include the ability to test for genetic predispositions to dozens of ailments, the ability to target specific genes in cancer therapies, and the identification of over 4,000 known disease-causing mutations.

As numerous and impactful these human and scientific influences are, some politicians and policy-makers are resistant to the idea of spending taxpayer money on scientific research.

“Sure,” they say, “you’ve demonstrated that funding scientific research can bring real human benefit, but we simply can’t afford to fund everything. A dollar going into science has to come out of defense, Medicaid, medicare, or another very worthy function of government.”

However, that doesn’t have to be the case. According to the non-profit Battelle institute, the HGP has brought about $48.9 billion in federal tax revenue. That’s right – the government has made (as of 2011) an 1186% profit on its investment. This carries with it nearly 4 million job years of employment, nearly $250 million in personal income, and a grand total economic output of $796 billion – all from a $3.8 billion kick-start. Funding science, as shown by the HGP, doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking. Indeed, it could push the budget-balance equation in the positive direction.

The HGP wasn’t the grand finale of biological research. Our generation has the opportunity to set the stage for the next great biological revolution with the Brain Mapping Initiative, which seeks to map every neural connection in our brains. Much in the spirit of the HGP, it will have ramifications in medicine, pharmaceuticals, and science that don’t necessarily have to hit the taxpayers hard in the pocket.

Drastic budgetary restructuring is necessary, and both parties will surely have a myriad of difficult decisions to make that will have serious ramifications on our quality of life. However, we as an enlightened society should urge our policy-makers not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, and maintain public funding for science.

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