We rely on scientific breakthroughs every day. Through the careful examination of the material world, scientists form groundbreaking conclusions that set a course for innovation and prosperity for all. They discover and invent new materials that can be used for new technologies (including whatever you’re using to read this article). They analyze the root causes of medical conditions and devise strategies to manage those conditions. They even study historical climate patterns so we can better predict and mitigate dangerous natural (and unnatural) weather phenomena.
But none of this is possible without funding for scientific research. When funding dries up, scientists can’t work – which means this entire engine for technological and cultural advancement comes screeching to a halt.
Research funding in the United States has declined in recent years, forcing researchers to compete aggressively for federal funding grants and limiting the number of projects being carried out. At this point, research funding is near crisis mode.
So how did we get here? And how can we escape?
Why Research Funding Is Down: Lower Federal Spending
The most obvious source of the problem is decreased federal spending on scientific research. This, itself, is due to a variety of factors, including:
Sluggish economic growth
The United States economy has continued to grow even during the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic – but growth is much slower than it was a few decades ago. This slower economic growth has led politicians to think more carefully about its investments.
While there are some small (and vocal) groups of voters interested in advancing scientific research, the majority of the voting base is apathetic to this issue. With no pressure to convince them otherwise, politicians continue to cut budgets.
Not every scientific study can produce an innovative or groundbreaking new discovery. In the absence of “sexy” results, politicians find it much easier to justify cutting funding.
Bigger budgetary concerns
United States debt is nearing $29 trillion – and it continues to climb. With such major financial problems looming over them, politicians are often unwilling to spend recklessly.
Why Research Funding Is Down: The Pharmaceutical Industry
There are many types of research that a pharmaceutical company can undertake. But basic research only amounts to about one-sixth of total R&D spending in the United States; much of the remainder is put into product development.
So why can’t pharmaceutical companies and similar producers close the research funding gap?
A focus on short-term profitability
Big companies have one motive only: profitability. If a research topic isn’t profitable, or if it doesn’t have the promise of future profitability, it’s not going to get a cent of funding.
Concerns about ROI
In line with this, many research endeavors end up inconclusive; if too many research programs fail, it could saddle the company with a negative return on investment (ROI).
Science is an unfathomably large field, but the number of profitable industries and profitable products in the country is limited. Most companies are too focused on their own area of specialty to expand their research horizons.
Hope for the Future?
With research funding down in nearly every conceivable area, is there any hope for the future of scientific advancement?
The short answer is yes. Despite lower access to federal funding and restricted funding in the pharmaceutical industry, research funding in universities and other educational institutions is actually up – and it has the potential to continue climbing well into the future.
In the meantime, if you’re concerned about the lack of research funding available, there are several active steps you can take:
Voice your support
Voice your support for scientific research funding however you can. That might mean calling your Senator to express your thoughts on an upcoming research funding bill or simply sharing an insightful scientific study across social media to highlight the benefits that scientific research provides to us. Anything you do to raise public awareness and/or persuade decision makers is helpful.
If you have the resources to do so, consider donating to a nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research. Just make sure you do your due diligence to confirm the activities of this organization before donating.
Different political candidates have varying stances on the value of scientific research. If you support more funding for scientific research, it’s important to research candidates before voting for them – and only vote for candidates likely to advance your vision for a scientific future.
Get involved in science
You can be part of the change yourself. Consider enrolling in a science education program and becoming a new voice in the scientific community advocating for advancement and change.
These small steps may not make much of an impact on an individual level. But if you and millions of other people follow this formula, we can collectively drive a significant change – and free up significant sums of money to funnel into scientific research.