Science funding sources have varied over the decades, and will continue to do so as the sociological and political influences change, says Scott Chimileski.
Contributor Scott Chimileski
Twenty-first century science is global, rapidly communicated and irreversibly intertwined with virtually every aspect of society. This immensity creates the impression that our current scientific culture has been established for a very long time. However, the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE), pillars of basic science that we recognize them to be, were all established after many of today’s senior investigators were born. In addition to appreciating the cyclical nature of funding (see part one), it is critical to consider how and why funding sources have changed throughout the history of science.
From the scientific revolution at the end of Renaissance through the 19th century, science was largely self-funded or driven by the patronage of other independently wealthy individuals. Many famous forefathers of science had side jobs. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, whose observations of bacteria in the 17th century inspire microbiologists to this day, was a house manager. Little is known of how he made his microscopes, let alone exactly how he paid for supplies. His contemporary Robert Hooke, another pioneer of microbiology, was an architect and city surveyor. Johannes Kepler wrote horoscopes. And, Galileo Galilei – celebrated for early observations of Saturn’s shape and the Milky Way Galaxy – pitched his telescopes to the military of the Republic of Venice as naval instruments, and to the House of Medici in Florence as a means for naming distant moons after members of this powerful dynasty.
Returning to this less regulated style of science could be dangerous and counterproductive. Beyond this, the biggest questions addressed by modern science can only be pursued by enormous interdisciplinary efforts. Particle accelerators, giant space telescopes and biomedical initiatives like the Human Microbiome Project require a range in participation sometimes involving several nations, hundreds of institutions and thousands of scientists.
What we can learn from the gentlemen scientists is that science is not fuelled by money alone. Rather, science is driven by intrinsic human curiosity. No matter how and where funding is derived, so long as we have the means for sharing observations and ideas, scientific investigation will continue.
After the Second World War, the scientific advisor to President Roosevelt, Vannevar Bush, forever changed the course of science policy in the United States. With his 1945 essay, Science – The Endless Frontier, Bush popularized a novel idea: that research not directly associated with war-time projects should fall under the domain of the government. Within a series of seminal letters that would lead to the formation of the NSF in 1950, Roosevelt brainstormed with Bush, suggesting that, “thousands of scientists in universities and in private industry, should be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.”
Before the NSF, the National Institutes of Health was the only federal agency funding scientific research, established in 1887 as a single laboratory within the Marine Hospital Service. NASA, a symbol of fundamental human exploration, was created in 1958 as a direct response to Russia’s Sputnik satellite. Likewise, the DOE, which spearheaded the Human Genome Project and now sponsors more basic research in physical sciences than any governmental group, came about through the legacy of the Manhattan Project and was only consolidated into its current form in the late 1970’s following an oil crisis.
Most scientists have naturally adapted to the current scientific epoch dominated by a mixture of government funding agencies. However, it is clear that sources of funding have been highly variable during the relatively brief history of science that I’ve explored. The federal agencies that today appear synonymous with science itself have taken on roles hardly recognizable relative to the socio-economic forces through which they were conceived.
Because science funding has changed greatly in the past, it is reasonable to expect nothing less in the future. For example, when plotted according to funding source, national R&D data reveals that industrial funding has rapidly accelerated in the past twenty years, relative to federal funding (see graph). A significant fraction of funding from the “other” category, which includes private foundations, crowd-sourcing websites and philanthropy, is also emerging. Open-access publishing and the integration of science communication with social media may further stimulate shifts in the way science is funded.
Without the context that the future will provide, it is difficult to determine whether the decrease in federal funding rates in the past five years represents a true crisis or an uncomfortable transition towards a new balance of funding sources. In part three, I will interview up-and-coming investigators and draw from the experience of senior researchers, to explain why, in any of these scenarios, I think that no amount of pessimism in response to changes in funding should deter anyone from becoming a scientist.