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Academic Bias, Recent News, U.S. Politics

“Basic Science” Redefined

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has condemned President Obama’s $3.77 trillion budget as “just another left-wing wish list.” It raises spending and offsets these increases with additional taxes, such as a proposed 94 cents per pack additional tax on cigarettes. It also proposes additional funding for “basic research.”

“The administration’s 2014 spending plan includes a total of $33.2-billion for basic research, an increase of about 4 percent over fiscal-2012 levels,” reports Paul Basken for The Chronicle of Higher Education (emphasis added). “It proposes total research-and-development spending of $143-billion, about 1.3 percent more than the fiscal-2012 amount.”

“The White House, throughout its annual budget, avoided making the usual direct comparisons to current-year spending because agencies are still calculating the full effects of the cuts from the sequestration measure that took effect last month,” he writes.

Obama has listed “research spending as one of the areas where greater federal spending was needed to help expand the economy,” reports Basken. And The Chronicle of Higher Education is happy to demonstrate how this research expands the economy. “[The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation] [...] has calculated that the $9.5-billion reduction in federal research-and-development financing in the 2013 fiscal year will reduce the gross domestic product by $154-billion to $654-billion over the next nine years.”

“The total number of jobs lost or not created by 2016 as a result of the budget cuts will be 342,000, the foundation estimates.”

“Thomas Baldwin, executive associate dean of the University of California at Riverside’s College of Natural and Agricultural Science, likes to point out that a little company called Google was conceived with the help of a National Science Foundation grant,” reports Don Troop for The Chronicle.

But basic research has another side. Maybe we should take a look at the type of things that the National Science Foundation is approving grants for these days. “The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $384,949 grant to Yale University for a study on ‘Sexual Conflict, Social Behavior and the Evolution of Waterfowl Genitalia,’ according to the recovery.gov website,” reported CNS News last month.

The grant was made as part of the stimulus package and studies the forced copulation of ducks, essentially animal rape, according to Yale ornithology professor Richard Prum. “Sexual coercion among ducks used to be labeled ‘rape,’” Prum told Emma Goldberg with Yale Daily News, “but during the feminist revolution of the 1970s, advocates shifted the biological use of the word ‘rape’ and called the phenomenon among ducks ‘forced copulation.’”

“As a result, the public began to disregard the importance of sexual violence for nonhuman animals, he added.” The grant’s societal value apparently hinges on the idea that the research provides insights into the process of sexual evolution.

“Since Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards in the 1970s and 1980s, basic science projects are periodically singled out by people with political agendas to highlight how government ‘wastes’ taxpayer money on seemingly foolish research,” argued the principal investigator, Patricia Brennan, in an April 2 piece for Slate Magazine. “These arguments misrepresent the distinction between and the roles of basic and applied science.”

“Basic science is not aimed at solving an immediate practical problem.” That is why it is difficult to get non-governmental funding for such projects. “Basic science is an integral part of scientific progress, but individual projects may sound meaningless when taken out of context. Basic science often ends up solving problems anyway, but it is just not designed for this purpose,” she argues.

“Most of the grant money was spent on salaries, putting money back into the economy,” argues Brennan. Actually, if the money had to be taxed before it became part of her and others’ salaries, part of the money was wasted, which creates a net loss for the economy (since the money was not spent or invested by its original owners without redistribution).

“Whether the government should fund basic research in times of economic crisis is a valid question that deserves well-informed discourse comparing all governmental expenses,” argues Brennan. For her, the choice is clear and the money is worth it. But for the average American, one might question the validity of using taxpayer dollars on a project that seems frivolous–especially when budget cuts are going into effect. (The ITIF study cited above was highly critical of the sequester.) Fox News readers disapproved of the NSF’s decision to fund this study by a whopping 87%.

One must also ask: Would the President’s additional money for research really benefit the economy, as advertised, or merely shift additional funds to projects much like this one?

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