Op-ed: Why Government Funding for the Sciences Matters

What has government-funded science ever done for us? Besides for the space program and all the spinoffs it produced (LASIK eye surgery and properly preserved food with nutrients intact, anyone?), astounding leaps in particle and neutrino physics, medical advancements beginning at the basic level, research programs at universities that both provide the breeding ground for the next groundbreaking scientists and generate new approaches to age-old problems, and a whole plethora of developments that fall under the umbrella of “blue sky” ideas that would never be undertaken by a private sector as they aren’t near completion and immediately profitable, anyway.

Monty Python references aside, it would take far more room than I have to rattle off every modern thing we take for granted that owes its existence to government-funded programs stumbling upon a practical, exciting application that was then taken and ran with by the private sector. That’s how scientific research in America works, really: the government funds the basic and broad research that seeks to understand the why, and once that why is understood the private sector can then run with it to make it profitable and (ultimately) vital to every-day life.

No private sector could do what government-funded research labs do because it isn’t immediately profitable. Does that mean the research isn’t worthwhile? I don’t have a way to put in written words how absolutely wrong that assumption is. It’s quite the opposite. Government-funded research has the ability to look into those “technologies of tomorrow” that the private sector will ultimately utilize and the public will want to use in everything from the next generation of smart phones to more efficient, safe and affordable ways to heat and cool their homes. Research labs funded in this way don’t have the looming pressure of “will this be profitable?” that the private sector does, so they can focus on doing good science and actually making strides in our understanding, rather than making it work so a product can be out in time for some deadline.

What would budget cuts to scientific research look like? In a word, stagnation. When we as a country are concerned about our standing in the global sphere, concerned about preserving our position on the cutting edge of science and technology, how can we even think that science funding and education is a thing we can cut? How can we think it’s not vital when it feeds into everything from defense (something we know the government is a fan of) to medicine to the economy (science-related industries provide vast quantities of jobs, including the private sector, but those jobs can’t exist if the science that enables them isn’t done!).

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