Our response to Zika has shown us what’s wrong with Science Funding
H.R. 5325 (or: Continuing Appropriations and Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017, and Zika Response and Preparedness Act) was signed into law by President Obama on September 29, 20161. This bill provides $1.1 billion for the response to and basic research about Zika Virus. This funding was part of an “omnibus” bill passed to prevent the Government from closing its doors on October 1st.
This much needed funding comes more than eight months after President Obama requested $1.9 billion on February 22, 2016 to “respond to the Zika virus both domestically and internationally”, even urging Congress to act “expeditiously” (2). According to the CDC, at the time of this writing, 3,878 cases of Zika Infection have been reported in the United States, most of which are in Florida3. In the territories of the United States, locally acquired cases have reached 27,000.
Of course, this passed funding bill eight months later does not mean that Congress has not made an attempt. A few times Congress has proposed and debated on a bill, only to have it fail during a vote because of “rider” provisions that would cause it to lose support from either Democrats or Republicans (i.e., a rider provision that would defund Planned Parenthood will likely not pass, even if it did allocate money to fight Zika).
With the explosion of Ebola Virus in 2014 and Zika Virus in 2016, it is clear that the United States needs a change in the status quo when it comes to basic research. It has gotten harder and harder for research labs that do the basic science necessary to work out life-saving treatments for such harmful diseases due to the funding climate in science. For example, researchers, instead of spending time on experiments that could unlock the key to a vaccine for Zika, are spending money and resources on grant applications that are often denied.
Of President Obama’s budget for 20174, $33.50 billion is set aside for “General Science, Space, and Technology”, which funds NASA, NSF, NIH, and the Department of Energy. As a comparison, the budget for the National Defense is projected to be $616.98 billion (18.4 times greater). If just 5% of the National Defense were instead used for the sciences, the funding for Science in the US would effectively double.
I should note that I am not advocating for a large give-away of money without qualifications; of course, scientists should still have a strategic plan for the money they request, and should be able to present legitimate results in due time. However, I am proposing that the funding climate for science in the United States be dramatically changed.
This money would not simply stay in government, too. Most universities across the country have some sort of federally funded medical research. As mentioned above, this funding can be hard to come by, often making researchers prioritize the “current” threat (i.e. Zika research only after the recent outbreak), and neglecting other public health dangers that do not seem as immediate.
If science funding were increased, our approach to Science could be proactive, not reactive. Today, the reaction to epidemics in the US starts with an multi-month stall over funding; once passed, it can take years of research, development, and implementation before any real change can happen. If the government were to allocate more money to basic scientific research before these epidemics would happen, our society would be more prepared. Of course, it is impossible to predict which disease will explode at which time; however, a general preparation will allow public health responses to be swift if, and when, the need arises.
This improved funding climate would not just improve the response to epidemics; it would also improve scientific research for all branches of medicine, including chronic diseases. Millions of Americans live in chronic pain daily; with improved funding, it may be possible to ameliorate the lives of these patients, and improve the health of our citizenry.
It is a commonly recited fact that the United States is falling behind in Math and Science Education5. If we put money into science, we could create a positive feedback loop of scientific advancement. Take, as an example, the Space Race of the 1950s and ‘60s. After the successful orbit of Sputnik, the US Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which permitted better science education at all levels, from middle to graduate school.6 This drove the United States to become a powerhouse of science and technology in the world. Today, if the NASA budget were expanded, for instance, young children could have more opportunities to watch historical launches that explore other worlds; they could be ignited on a path of science, pushing our country to the forefront of the world of science.
In the end, it is important that scientists are unhindered by grant applications so they can focus on what they do best: Science, and working every day to improve the health of those around the country and the world.
1. "H.R.5325 - 114Th Congress (2015-2016): Continuing Appropriations And Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, And Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017, And Zika Response And Preparedness Act". Congress.Gov, 2016. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/5325.
2. Obama, Barack. "Letter From The President -- Zika Virus". The White House, February 22, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/22/letter-president-zika-virus.
3. "Zika Case Counts In U.S.". CDC, 2014. https://www.cdc.gov/zika/geo/united-states.html.
4. "The President's Budget For Fiscal Year 2017". The White House, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget.
5. DeSilver, Drew. "U.S. Students Improving – Slowly – In Math And Science, But Still Lagging Internationally". Pew Research Center, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/02/u-s-students-improving-slowly-in-math-and-science-but-still-lagging-internationally/.
6. "How Sputnik Changed U.S. Education". Harvard Gazette, 2007. http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/10/how-sputnik-changed-u-s-education/.
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