Funding for fundamental research is under threat

The United States has been the leader in fundamental research for the past seven decades, remaining the single-largest contributor to worldwide research, but this is changing. In 2000 the US accounted for 40% of global research and development (R&D) output, reducing to 29.3% by 2013. A central reason for this reduction is China’s investment, which will likely surpass the US in total R&D funding by 2019.

The US now faces a dilemma over the future of this national achievement and the supporting arrangements making it sustainable. The ‘social contract’ for science and research now looks more tentative than at any time since the Space Race.

Many US university leaders, faculty, experts and policy-makers are increasingly voicing concern. There is a tension in the relationship between universities and government, and between researchers and the public.

Fundamental research is overwhelmingly undertaken in or in conjunction with US research-intensive universities, and since the 1950s they have depended on federal funding to make this possible. Of the US$68 billion the National Science Foundation reported universities spent on research in 2015, direct US government financing accounted for over US$37 billion or an average of 55% of the total reported.

For some of the largest research universities, such as Stanford University, federal financing alone was approaching two-thirds of their reported total expenditure.

Science is public, what is public is political

The public and congressional support underpins federal support for research. Research has been consistently funded as part of the discretionary budget since the end of the Space Race.

Many people fear this investment may finally soon decline. Since being elected in 2016 President Donald Trump has produced two budgets proposing to dramatically reduce federal support for science and his administration continues to entertain criticism of high profile areas of science, such as climate research.

It is fair to ask whether this is the most overt hostility shown by a US federal administration to science since the creation of the modern science state following the Second World War.

Scientists, university leaders and advocates rightly voice concern that significantly reducing federal funding in a haphazard or disruptive manner will undermine the US research effort.

Setting aside the high-profile rhetoric, to focus on the possible actions of one administration downplays the longer term and more systemic political factors at play. For many supporters of fundamental research there has been a willingness not to dwell on the ugly inevitability that, if it is to continue apace in the US under the present structures, it will likely require ever more public money.

A precarious future?

For the future of US pure science and research, two factors are likely to be decisive. The first is whether the potency of public backing for funding university-based fundamental research continues, and the second is how universities respond if, and in the assessment of many, when this support erodes.

While public and congressional support for funding pure science is widespread, there are signs this could diminish. On the one hand, it appears less clear in the public mind what the societal benefits of university-based fundamental research are and hence why it should be a congressional priority.

On the other hand, a growing contestation and partisanship for some areas undermine the credibility of the scientific enterprise itself. High profile partisan attacks and threats to federally defund these areas, such as for climate science, erode the legitimacy of all publicly supported research.

Why government should support often opaque research above other priorities is not as obvious to the general public as it once was. China does not, for many, present the same existential threat as the Cold War.

In the immediate term there appears a need for a greater commitment from key advocates of fundamental research to ensure a wider understanding of the value of supporting science, especially when the financial capacity of government is strained.

Diversifying funding

Given the precarious prospects for the current scale of public support, the response by universities themselves becomes all the more critical if the US’s fundamental research effort is not to be undermined.

There are legitimate questions around whether the response to date will be sufficient to mitigate a serious decline. There remains much work to be done by institutions to build their capacity to diversify sources of support, and this will likely require a public conversation as well as the support of government. If universities do not act to meet such concerns, they may soon have little say in how they are addressed.

Some stark conclusions are unavoidable. There is a risk public trust will further erode and that the social contract for science breaks down. In such circumstances, it is likely researchers would be less able to attract support from government or other benefactors. In many instances, universities are still a long way from finding convincing answers should this come to pass.

If the US system is to remain viable, universities and their advocates will need to make greater efforts to restate their science mission.

Dr Gwilym Croucher is the 2017-18 Fulbright Victorian Postdoctoral Scholar for which he is a visiting fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education. Croucher is a research academic in the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, Australia, as well as principal policy adviser in the University of Melbourne’s Chancellery. This article is an edited version of his paper, “Can the Research Model Move beyond its Dominant Patron?”, which can be found here.