Science Funding in the Pre-Partisan Age

In this intensely partisan environment where those who have traditionally supported Federal science funding have, in their zeal to cut, cut, cut, begun to do the unthinkable, I would like to hearken back to a time of yore.

The date: April 2, 1988.  Then-President Ronald Reagan, in a radio address, spoke to the American people about the Federal role in scientific research, and, specifically basic research.  Like today, the Nation faced budget constraints.

Of Federal funding basic research, President Reagan said the following:

“Some say we can’t afford it, that we’re too strapped for cash.  Well, leadership means making hard choices, even in an election year.”

And, like the results of recent polling on public support for science, President Reagan understood that this is a hard sell in a time of fiscal constraint.

“The problem here is that science, unlike a bridge or an interstate highway or a courthouse, has no local constituency.”

He continued:

“…it’s my duty as President to draw [the importance of Federal science funding] to your attention and that of Congress….If we don’t explore, others will and we’ll fall behind.  This is why I’ve urged Congress to devote more money to research…It is an indispensable investment in America’s future.”

So, to sum up, President Reagan, back in 1988, spoke of the importance of Federal funding for basic research at a time of tight budgets.  And he was a Republican.

Today, President Obama, a Democrat, has been similarly vociferous in his support of Federal funding for scientific research and the need for the U.S. to continue to compete technologically with the rest of the world.

The message: Science is no place for partisan politics, even in times of economic duress.

As President Reagan’s radio address emphasized back in 1988, and as President Obama has indicated repeatedly, Federal science funding should not be the place to look for unwarranted or irrational cuts.  It is NOT the place for political grandstanding and picking on funny-sounding projects which, if one delves deeper, actually have a defensible scientific basis.

Federal support for science funding has been and continues to be a critical investment in America’s future. It is an engine of economic growth, and of jobs. Despite the fact that a week in politics may as well be a lifetime, where short-termism is the norm, Members of Congress must rise above partisan politics and look beyond a week, a month or a year.  They must look out 5 years.  Or even 10.  They must put their money where their mouths are: if you truly support our Nation, if you really believe in our economic future, then, yes, cut where cuts need to be made.  But do not cut off our economic noses to spite our faces.  Continue to invest in our Nation by investing in science.

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