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Slashing money for research isn't the answer

The arts and sciences make tempting targets for budget cutters, but we all benefit from the cumulative effects of scientific inquiry.

Published: Thursday, May 2, 1996


Page: 9A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

The Tax Foundation has announced this year's Tax Freedom Day: as of next Tuesday the average American will have earned enough annual salary to pay his or her total Federal, state and local taxes. Last week Congress settled on a budget for the rest of the year. The wrestling begins again over a budget to eliminate deficit spending over several years. In an age where we increasingly question the use of our tax dollars, the arts and sciences become easy targets for budget slashers, whether at the national or local level. After all, do we really need to study the mating habits of the spotted owl, or search deep space for another celestial enigma? Are we spending too much on science? Couldn't we solve the deficit problem by foreclosing on NASA, selling off the National Institutes of Health, and shutting the doors at the National Science Foundation?

Guess again. On the Tax Foundation's scale, you finished paying for your share of Big Science (NSF) research before your coffee break on your first morning at work after the Rose Bowl! Throw in NASA's research and development budget, and you were still done before punching out that same day. You worked another day for all (NIH) medical research. If these surprise you, consider that you paid for the National Endowment of the Arts in less than four minutes.

I could argue for all of the practical spinoffs from scientific research sponsored by the NSF and NASA--from WD-40 to lightweight motors. That would be easy. It's more difficult to argue for the non-tangibles. I'll take that higher road first.

One needs to realize that a large fraction of scientific progress comes from basic research that has little obvious initial practical application. The investigator is curious about something and, working in her or his ivory tower lab, cares little about its impact on mankind. This scientist works with the purest of intentions and such free play results in new, fundamental understanding that must precede practical applications. Equally important is the role of serendipity: many discoveries are made which were not the goal of the original research. This occurs, of course, in corporate labs as well. Bell Labs engineers were studying satellite communications when they stumbled across radio noise from all parts of the sky--the echo of the Big Bang. Ma Bell wasn't looking for the cosmic background radiation when she got her wrong connection.

As a society, we initially taxed ourselves for purposes of national defense. Later, we added other items, many of which were more "wants" than needs. Some items are simply too large to fund privately, or are non-profit enterprises like the arts and sciences, that most of us agree add enjoyment to life. We all support some things that don't directly benefit every one of us. Maybe the symphony, or a new basketball coliseum. We help each other listen to the chords of Felix Mendelsohn or watch the court work of Kenny Anderson. We all need pavement, but mankind does not live by roads alone.

With the current, low inflation factored in, the NSF budget is a bit above flat. The NASA situation is more serious, with a 30% cut threatened over the seven-year deficit itch. So where are your taxes going?

Consider the military--you're working for them for more than a month on the Foundation scale. Their research budget alone is equal to the sum of the NSF, NIH, EPA, NASA and research in the Agriculture, Energy, Interior, and Commerce departments. And, research comprises only a tiny fraction of the defense budget.

Perhaps we are continuing to prepare for the wrong enemy. While we need to maintain a reasonable defense, we need to re-examine overall priorities. Indeed, there are scientific advances to be made that will lead to both new knowledge and an assault on natural enemies that I guarantee will attack and kill every year. Geologists are searching for a better understanding of volcanoes and earthquakes, with prediction capabilities still eluding them. Progress in meteorology has helped predict violent storms, but weather modeling is still as much an art as a science. Biologists are mapping the human genome, but gene therapy is making slow progress. These are just some fronts where additional investment in arsenal will pay back for everybody.

Spending too much on science? Hardly. Indeed, let's re-slice the pie and make our work help us all.

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