As a PhD candidate in the last year of my doctorate, I’m currently applying for postdoctoral positions, and running into a lot of difficulty because the fellowships that were previously available are on ice (NOAA, EPA), dead (USGS Mendenhall), or are so selective and prohibitive in their application requirements that they are effectively a lottery (NSF). These fellowships are would support my living and research costs for 1-2 years and allow me to continue my work after graduate school while I look for faculty positions. Right now, I have a front-row seat watching the death of a generation of AMERICAN researchers before they even get started. We can’t get support for our work, and there are not enough privately-funded grants to cover the gap, and there never will be. So many of my peers are giving up and entering the private sector or going abroad.
You might think this is the point in my essay where I assert to you that funding science is the *right* thing to do and produces knowledge which improves the human condition and is the greatest thing that our species can aspire to, yada yada yada. While all of that is true, if you’re reading this, you likely already agree. What you might not be aware of, however, is that science is a smart investment of public funds in the short term. Science is a powerful engine of economic stimulus. Every researcher takes part in an enormous amount of economic activity which produces multiple dollars of payoff for every dollar of AMERICAN federal grant money invested.
Let me give you an example with my research work, which is small potatoes compared to the big labs, which apply for grants that measure in the millions of dollars. I am an isotope biogeochemist. To conduct my work, I require the use of immensely complex machines called mass spectrometers. These devices cost somewhere between the cost of a low end BMW ($45,000) and an Italian supercar (hundreds of thousands). The companies that make these (Thermo-Fisher, PerkinElmer, etc) are multi-billion dollar corporations which employ thousands of skilled workers in AMERICA and depend on the sale, support and upkeep of machines like these to make a profit and provide AMERICAN jobs. The sale of scientific equipment is their bread and butter, so the grant money that I spend running samples on the mass spec is going right towards employing other highly-educated AMERICAN workers. The same goes for the scanning electron microscope that I use, the micromill (the little robot I use to drill my shells), and the vials and everyday supplies I use. All are manufactured by AMERICAN companies.
At my local level, I am not doing the day-to-day work of running the mass spectrometers. My department employs highly educated technicians, some with PhDs of their own. They do the day-to-day work of keeping these engineering marvels running and helping us do our research. I will be writing another blog post soon about these unsung wizards of science, but know that behind every talented researcher you know, there are at least a few talented technicians that enabled them to do the science. And all of those people depend on research money to be able to do those jobs, and are paying taxes, so many of those tax dollars go right back into the AMERICAN Treasury.
The university where I study is the top employer in the county. Universities are the top employers in many counties and even states nationwide. My school makes jobs and generates economic activity which transformed Santa Cruz from a sleepy vacation town into an engine of research and development. Behind the technicians and researchers that do science, there is a vast ocean of administrators needed to do paperwork, administer grant money, interface with the community and assist student needs. All of those people are generating economic activity in their communities, buying food, gas, and living their lives, contributing to a strong, fluid AMERICAN economy. Research is the lifeblood of an economy that cannot easily be automated or outsourced away from AMERICA, but only if we provide the federal funding to keep the machine running.
What I’m trying to articulate to you here is that funding science is not just a feel-good use of your tax dollars. It is a necessary use of your tax dollars. Right now, science is withering away in AMERICA. I can name ten researchers off the top of my head who are throwing in the towel and leaving the field or going abroad because they can’t get funding here. And the discoveries they would have made and the economic activity that they would have generated is happening in CHINA, and EUROPE, and increasingly in ARAB countries, INDIA and the developing world. We need to immediately bring AMERICAN scientific funding back to its historical proportion of the federal budget at least, and hopefully ramp it up if we intend to continue to be the world’s biggest research economy.
I am not begging and wheedling you to fund science for my sake. I will be fine. There are lots of jobs that I can do, and I’m looking into doing these jobs abroad if I can’t find the support I need in AMERICA. But if you believe that AMERICA is great, you should be aware that a lot of that greatness is thanks to the economic stimulus brought about by basic research. Please keep that in mind when you vote, call your representatives, and even when you’re just talking about politics.