In a recent move by the incoming Republican majority in the House of Representatives, the YouCut Citizen Review put the National Science Foundation’s funding on display for consideration, by the American public. Designed as a grand experiment to better incorporate the electorate in funding decisions, YouCut was intended to allow the average citizen to assist in the reduction of government waste. This is an admirable mission, especially considering the release of new information on the country’s $13.7 trillion-and-rising debt burden.
However, it should not be the prerogative of the average American to review what deserves funding in the sciences, and what does not. History has shown that too often, funding for the sciences has been influenced by political and other non-scientific considerations, with resources and money ebbing and flowing with each new administration and the sentiments of the American people. For example, throughout the contemporary vaccine debate (intensified by anOctober Supreme Court case), popular celebrities and online media influenced a large number of Americans to believe that one of public health’s greatest achievements is somehow too unsafe—despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
The primary issue lies not with the actual science itself, but the means by which science is communicated to the public. Every day, countless articles are published in academic journals and books on a multitude of topics, yet it is impossible for the average citizen to be expected to have the baseline knowledge to form a reasonable conclusion on whether a particular finding has merit. In essence, for one to determine whether a paper in a journal with a focus on neurobiology is reasonably articulated and carries potential for future innovation, that individual must have both the relevant background and experience in the field of neurobiology as well as be able to comprehend such materials from a scientific mindset. What that means is that a person must be able to intimately understand the jargon and pathways in which scientific inquiry moves forward, a foundation that goes beyond what may have been taught in grade school or even higher education.
Such critical experience is vital, yet Republicans have capitalized on the discontent of the populace and chosen to ignore this ideal in their campaign. On the YouCut website, two studies are cited (one on soccer players, the other on sounds in video games) to try and inflame the reader to investigate further “wasteful” spending at the NSF. However, it disregards the simple fact that science does not operate in a vacuum.
In the words of Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Every project builds off the common knowledge of the past and has the ability to advance the realm of human understanding one more step forward. Consumer products, ranging from the Global Positioning Systems to the memory foam in our beds, came about from what could be arguably wasteful research funding. They came to fruition based on the painstakingly established groundwork of the basic sciences and the subsequent steps from there to the applied realm.
The public is not necessarily trained in that sort of framework, and because of that, we cannot expect to treat cuts in science as we would more straightforward and practical issues, such as lawmaker salaries and perks. When we impose that sort of responsibility on average citizens, superficial issues such as nomenclature or the inability to comprehend the future benefits of a technology tend to trump the often more technical, less accessible jargon that peer researchers understand and base their opinions upon. The amount of $750,000 “to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players” might sound unnecessary at first glance, but the study was designed to more broadly analyze the role of “team members in any organization,” offering insights into efficiency and productivity that have a sweeping impact in areas such as manufacturing and business, providing a much-needed competitive edge.
Republicans may score points for making the reasonable claim that spending should be reigned in, but they must consider the reality that science funding has been the backbone of America’s technical development and prowess. Any attempts to cut or draw down this funding are short sighted, and more importantly, undermine the engine that has catapulted the U.S. into its dominant position today.