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Basic Research Often Mocked, Targeted for Budget Cuts Due to Lack Of Public Understanding

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When video footage of David Scholnick's research was posted to YouTube without his knowledge — and without any explanation of the science — he defended his research through the news media. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

At first, evolutionary biologist Patricia Brennan was not alarmed by the news stories about her research. Her work on the evolutionary changes in duck genitalia had always attracted some attention. But, as alerts continued to come that day in 2013, she noticed that they were primarily in conservative news outlets, and that the headlines were getting more and more negative. Many criticized her research's federal funding while other programs were being cut due to the budget sequestration.

"There were these weird attempts to put a direct link between [my research] and the fact that we couldn't have White House Tours," said Brennan, a research assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  

"I was ready to crawl under my desk. It was a very difficult time," Brennan said. But soon, "I felt I had to join the conversation," and correct some of the misrepresentations of her research. She published a response pointing out that the conservative media had missed the point of doing basic science, and she participated in media interviews that gave a more accurate and balanced portrayal of her research. Soon other commentators then joined her in that defense.

"If we don't respond to these attacks, we miss an opportunity to educate people."

Amy Brennan

Brennan related her experience as part of a panel discussion about defending scientific grants against unjustified attacks during the 40th AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, held 30 April-1 May in Washington D.C.

Basic science is the majority of the research done, and it's the foundation for all translational and applied science, Brennan said. Further, it's impossible to cut basic research without potentially cutting out some really useful knowledge important applications. "It's totally unpredictable which basic research projects will pay off later," she said.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, who moderated the panel, said he likes to make that point to people by holding up his cell phone. "I tell them that the iPhone depends on eight or nine basic technologies," none of which were invented by Apple. Those inventions were discovered at research universities or government laboratories, which were funded by "you-the taxpayer," Rawlings said.

While funding for applied science research mostly comes from industry, the biggest funder of basic science is the federal government, and most recipients of that funding are academic researchers. That's why it's important for academic researchers to become advocates for science and explain to the public why their work matters, Brennan said.  

"We need to fight these fights," to ensure funding for science isn't cut, Brennan said. "If we don't respond to these attacks, we miss an opportunity to educate people." Academics can teach their students why basic science is important, and they can further advocate for science to the public in speeches, in writing, by voting or by supporting science advocacy groups, she said. Universities could also help by supporting these efforts, including recognizing outreach work when faculty members are considered for tenure, she said later.

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From left, Hunter Rawlings, Melinda Baldwin, David Scholnick, Patricia Brennan, Jim Cooper | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

The debate about whether the federal government should spend money on basic research instead of giving more to applied research is an old one, said Melinda Baldwin, a lecturer in the history of science at Harvard University. It began before the National Science Foundation was created in 1950. When Congress did approve the institution, supporters of basic science had the upper hand. But that did not squelch the debate, Baldwin said.

In 1975, with the federal government also facing cuts and an oil crisis, Senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) established the "Golden Fleece" awards to recognize what he said was some of the worst uses of government money. He often targeted basic research, particularly research that sounded silly or subversive. He also attacked the peer review process the NSF used to award grants, saying it was too secretive and "incestuous," which was leading to funding irrelevant projects. He continued his attacks until the end of his incumbency in 1988.

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Rep. Jim Cooper | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

In 2012, partly in response to Proxmire, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) helped create the "Golden Goose" awards with the help of AAAS and other organizations. The award honors federally-funded research projects that may have sounded silly, but turned out to be the basis for important and valuable applications. "All of science is oddball science, because if you're going beyond what we understand today, it all sounds weird," Cooper said. In fact, everyone's guilty of the same thing Proxmire and others did, he said, which is caring only about those things that directly affect or benefit us and making fun of the things we don't understand.

David Scholnick, a professor of biology at Pacific University, had an experience similar to Brennan's when a video of some of his research was posted on YouTube without his knowledge. The "shrimp on a treadmill" video went viral. But since the link didn't contain any explanation, it failed to inform viewers and invited ridicule. The research, which was to study the effects of environmental stress due to climate change on shrimp and other economically-important species, was attacked as another example of wasteful government spending.

Scholnick also chose to respond by participating in media interviews, which led to appearances on the "Today" show and other national programs, in an attempt to explain the point of his research. He had mixed success, he said. In retrospect, he said he would advise academics to get media training to help develop their message. He also wishes he had emphasized how important basic research is to educating students and the next generation of scientists.

"I'd always been told that it's bad to put spin on science, and that you just need to talk about the significance of your work," Scholnick said. "Now I disagree completely with that. I think it's important to emphasize the benefit to the public, the value of the work to the nation."

Author

Kathleen O'Neil