STEM research & Obama's budget proposal

STEM research and Obama 2016 budget proposalYesterday, I wrote about new data showing that medical research funding has not increased significantly since 2004. Because of the ever-rising cost of research, flat funding levels are worrisome--because of this funding plateau, we may not have the advanced treatments that could save or improve lives available to us as our population ages. Moreover, the United States is on its way to being surpassed in innovation by other countries funding research more vigorously. The Pew Research Center for Internet, Science, and Techonology released a report late last week examining the beliefs the public and scientists hold about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) research. Using representative samples of the public and of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pew delved into the nitty-gritty of individuals’ attitudes about science and its role in society. Especially for public funding, these views are important to consider because government funding options are influenced by voters and the political environment. (The report is rich and full of fascinating statistics, most of which I won’t be able to address here, so I recommend reading it in full at your leisure.)

Public perception of research funding

Just over 70% of Americans believe that government investment in engineering, technology, and basic science research will pay off eventually. About one-quarter say that the outcomes are not worth the investment. However, only 61% of the public supports government investment in STEM research. Over one-third have faith that private investment alone will be enough to progress STEM.

There seems to be little difference between Republicans (and right-leaning independents) and Democrats (and left-leaning independents) in beliefs about the importance of STEM research. Younger people tend to value investing in research more than Americans over age 65.

Scientists’ perception of research funding

About half of scientists surveyed believe that this is a good time for STEM, a notable decrease from 76% in 2009. Scientists are slightly more positive about their own fields, however, with 62% saying that now is a good time for their specialty.

The negative perceptions may be influenced by attitudes surrounding the funding process. More than eight out of ten scientists assert that obtaining federal research dollars is more difficult today than it was in 2009. Nearly half report that getting funding from industry and foundations is also more difficult. And scientists are in nearly total agreement (88%) that lack of funding is a serious problem for the ability to conduct high quality research.

Obama’s budget proposal for 2016

If most Americans believe that funneling money into STEM research is an important investment, why do most scientists feel that federal funding is difficult to obtain? President Obama released his budget proposal--let’s see what it has to say about funding research.

This table highlights just a few key areas relevant to STEM research funding and compares their proposed funding to the funding of other, unrelated program areas in the budget. Rows with red text represent STEM research funding.

Funding Area Proposed budget allocation
Special education $12.5 billion
Science and research laboratories $12.8 billion
NASA $18.1 billion
Health research and food safety $37.5 billion
Veterans health care $66.7 billion
Medicare $589.7 billion
National defense (including personnel, operations, equipment, and supplies) $615.5 billion
Social Security $944.3 billion

STEM research is funded at a much lower rate than the budget behemoths Medicare, Defense, and Social Security. One could argue that if we didn’t need or want to spend so much money on these areas, we would be able to fund more research. However, in the case of Social Security and Medicare, the United States has made a commitment to its citizens to provide health care for selected populations and financial support to those who have earned it. These costs are somewhat non-negotiable.

Political cartoon Obama budget

Whether these funding levels are sufficient for STEM research is not something on which I can meaningfully comment. But if researchers feel like they aren’t being funded well enough, and the American public values STEM investment, I have to wonder whether the United States is providing funding on the levels that the American public would prefer.

Without developing new technologies and advancing our understanding of medical science, we will soon be less innovative than other countries and will not produce the health breakthroughs we so desperately need. If we aren’t properly funding this research, we are the ones who will suffer.

Note: My views do not represent the views of any person or any entity associated with the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the United States government, or anything else. These ramblings are mine and mine alone.