Girl, Interrupting

January 3, 2011

Science Funding cuts are political not a reflection of elitist science

In the US and the UK governments are making or threatening science education and funding cuts, is that partly the fault of scientists being ‘elitist’ ?

Today is the first day of the new Republican Majority Congress in the US – with Eric Cantor taking the reins as House majority Leader …

One of Cantor’s first ‘targets’ of attack to stop the ‘overspending’ by the US government is the National Science Foundation – which is roughly equivalent to a research council in the UK – that is scientists write for competitive grant funding from the NSF to do a variety of scientific research. Cantor and Co. have set up a website called You Cut which asks the general public to search on the public NSF website here to find funding which they deem ‘un-necessary’ – Why Cantor chose the NSF if he really wanted to cut money is beyond me – the 2011 budget request for NSF is $7.4 billion out of a total of around $3.5 trillion is about 0.2% of the total US budget – as opposed to say Social Security or Defense (both around ~20% of the US federal budget) – so if you cut two or three $1 million projects (at 0.00002 % of the federal budget each) then you can work out the real financial savings this makes – zilch.

Similar to the budget cuts in the UK – the reasons for this attack are almost certainly political not financial. Cantor himself says that much of what the NSF funds is ‘useful’. Both deficit reducing policies want to be seen as tackling the deficit and ‘looking’ out for how government wastes money, thereby saving the tax-paying electorate from profligate spending. There are obvious similarties with the US Republican Congress under Gingrich (after Clinton’s first mid-term in 1992) with its attack on the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). The NEA, which has a relatively tiny budget (155 million as of FY2009 – 0.004% of the US federal budget), was attacked because, in a nut shell, some of the funded art was deemed to have anti-family and Christian values.

But the NSF doesn’t really cross loggerheads with many social conservative issues, so why attack the NSF? Why attack science budgets in general? (as has also been happening in the UK – see all of the coverage of the Science-Is-Vital campaign)

One of the arguments for WHY science is under attack is because there is a public perception that scientists are ‘elitist’. The last UK government was concerned about this perception, Labour launched a campaign to reduce the public perception of scientists as elitists in January 2009. Science, like art, should be for all and for the benefit of all, but is this why it is under attack? Because it is perceived as an elitist activity? Because people feel like you have to be a ‘genius’ to engage in science? Is it the fault of scientists, who ‘don’t communicate’ but stay in their ‘high-brow’ ivory towers, feeling so superior to the rest of the plebeian world?

I don’t think that science communication or scientific elitistism (Yes some scientists are ‘elitist;, but I would argue most aren’t) has much to do with it, except in the sense that the arguments for science funding may lack public support. It is a political attack and may or may not work in the next US congressional session (it is too early to tell), but because it is something that is not seen as ‘essential’ to the public it is an easy attack. It is also a tiny bit of the budget, but a single program which could be cut and not effect but a few (in the short term) in comparison to say Medicare which has a big chunk of the budget and its dissolution would effect alot more people in the US.

Do scientists need to communicate better? Absolutely, but we are working on that, and science communication IS getting better, especially with the advent of social media and the blogosphere. It needs to get better because science is important and needs to garner support when these crazy cut ideas come from any government but, again, I don’t think ‘elite science’ or bad communication is responsible for the current cut scare, short-sighted governments are and it is indeed more political in flavour than purely anti-scientific.

The good news is that the NEA has survived, since attacks since the 1980’s; let’s hope the NSF does too.

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