It’s a common complaint: We spend too much money on obscure research. We’re in debt. We can’t afford to pay graduate students to play fetch.
With the congressional supercommittee’s debt-reduction deadline approaching, federal funding of basic scientific research — from the Energy Department, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and many others — could be on the chopping block. If the supercommittee can’t reach an agreement, an across-the-board, $1.2 trillion cut will automatically kick in, and it could slash science funding by 8 percent in 2013, according to a recent estimate by Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society.
Republican members of the House science committee wrote a letter to the supercommittee last month to suggest cutting budgets for the Energy Department’s “biological and environmental research” because it’s “duplicative” of industry efforts. They say that the department has taken on a “venture capitalist role” in research — a role that should be played by actual venture capital firms. Their concerns echo a wider belief that business should fund science and government involvement should be limited.
It’s tempting to offload the cost of science onto business, but there are some kinds of research that only government can make possible. This kind of science is often called “basic,” though it’s anything but.
At the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI), scientists are doing crucial research that could vastly enrich our economy over the next 50 years. At least, that’s their goal. The problem is that this kind of work could go nowhere. That makes it a bad business investment, though a necessary investment in our future. So the problem is: How can obscure scientific research — that may one day create huge rewards — be made to seem necessary, relevant and definitely off the table when it comes to drastic budget cuts?
I visited JGI in Walnut Creek, Calif., to try to find out. The institute, which helped decode the human genome in the 1990s, is now focused on studying the DNA of plants and microbes. That research could at some point yield new biofuels and aid environmental cleanup.
JGI director and geneticist Eddy Rubin is a pioneer in the field of “metagenomics,” the study of how the DNA in many creatures can work together to create ecosystems. Right now, he and his team are studying microbes that live in a cow’s rumen, the stomach-like organ that the animals use to break down grasses into fuel. All their results are published publicly online, for scientists and entrepreneurs to mine for ideas and to prevent unnecessary duplication of research.
Rubin knows there’s a belief that federally funded science shouldn’t do what industry could, as the Republican science committee members wrote. “But,” he said, “private industry isn’t going to build supercomputers to study weather. Or giant accelerators to probe the fundamental particles of nature. That’s what the government needs to do.”