The current US administration has begun examining ways it might trim the national budget for science, and regardless of which side of the political spectrum one falls on there is a sort of inevitable-ness to gradually decreasing funding in sciences. Science can drive progress, but it’s often an expensive investment into the unknown.
Subjecting that kind of important work to the whim of the taxpayer has both benefits and drawbacks. Today, we see the drawbacks that include tighter budgets, layoffs and stagnating progress. It wasn’t that long ago those same programs were putting people into space and investigating places previously untouched.
Shrinking budgets mean creative thinking, new sources of funding and some challenges too.
One of the first things that happens when a budget shrinks is that work either stops or slows. At a university, researchers may be forced to close a project but things don’t just stop. New techniques, like biobanking, offer cost-effective ways to store experiments long-term. Bio banks have also made the acquisition of samples more affordable, so losing some aspects of work is no longer as costly.
While it’s true that work ceases, it can often pick up where it left off given proper funding. Funding is still a challenge, but there exist more ways to find it today than ever before.
Like movies and video games, it’s become popular to crowdfund scientific experiments in order to learn more. Websites like Experiment or Petridish offer alternatives to the typical sources of funding, for better or for worse.
There are some complications to this idea, as universities typically tend to back their work with the acquisition of grants that offer status benefits in addition to money. Still, small outfits are utilizing these new funding models to accomplish more. However, there is the drawback of the emotional appeal. There is some debate as to the kind of spectacle one must create in order to appeal on a crowdfunding website, which asks for money from a larger segment of the population that may not be as scientifically minded.
There is also the possibility that a lack of funding leads to brain drain. Cynics might argue that spending enough time in academia, one might finally finish an experiment. This attitude comes from the fluidity of university funding for experiments. We live in a very results-oriented society, and science doesn’t always play to those sensibilities.
This funding juggle can frustrate some, or just make it difficult to find stable work. Either way, scientists will leave in search of better opportunities. This is an inevitable part of cutting funding. When funding returns, it will be important to have rules in place that allow for us to fill that void left behind in these times of stagnation.
One of the important concepts to keep in mind is that funding is fluid and sources for it are everchanging. One administration may take a stance best described as anti-science while another may support a particular kind of science over any other. The direction that person leads the country will determine where funding goes and what work can continue.
As private citizens, we can do our part by participating more. Taking more of an interest in scientific stories and studies, reading beyond headlines and looking for ways to back projects with our own money where possible.