NaBloPoMo, Federal Funding for Science

It’s National Blog Posting Month, and things are winding down a bit for me. So I figured I’d try my hand at posting every day, and poof, like that, some inspiration arrived for me.

First came Nature’s endorsement of Barack Obama, in which the editors state that they believed that his policies would lead to more funding for research than Mitt Romney. However, they did not explain at all why the government needs to fund research in the first place. (Perhaps they felt their audience did not need any explanation, since their livelihoods depend on it.)

Second came an article in Cell, in which a biologist laid out in more detail how government funding for science works, who has any power in the process, and who to put pressure on to make scientists’ voices heard. This is a great read for scientists and scientists in training; it is unfortunately behind a paywall, though, so only scientists/scientists in training affiliated with universities etc can get to it without paying 30 bucks. That said, this article, too, does not explain WHY we need government to fund science.

Finally, one of the bloggers I follow made a post about becoming more active in advocating for science policy. Frankly, this is one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place, to practice my hand at writing about science for public consumption. After all, the public elects the government, and (ideally….) those elected will represent the will of the people who elects them.

So in the next few days I am going to try to put together some posts about how government funding for science and technology works, some of the history behind how funding agencies came into being, what this funding has yielded us, and why we need to continue to fund research.

I want to start by saying that research scientists sure as hell are not doing it for the money. Graduate school is 4-8 years of hard labor, with minimal pay (typically 20-30K/year). Depending on the discipline, one then has to do a postdoc, also with minimal pay but grueling hours (maybe 30-40K/year) for another 2-5 years. Then if you’re lucky, you can find an academic position, but then you have to worry about getting tenure, so you have to juggle writing grants, starting up a lab, getting published… your pay goes up but the stress seems (to me) exponentially higher. And once you have tenure, you still have to fund your lab, and very few become millionaires doing this kind of work.

Compare this to if I had simply gone straight to industry as an engineer…. back in 2001, I had an offer of a starting salary of ~60K right out of the gate from undergrad. Nevermind what my bank account would be like if I had gone to Google at that point.

I’m not trying to make academic science researchers out to be martyrs. But I do want to make it clear that when we advocate for science funding, it is not merely for ourselves, but for our work, because there is some part of us that truly is trying to make the world a better place. There is no corporate line there, simply a yearning to know more.

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