The American people funding research and development are out of touch with the findings and how they are discovered

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Where does research money come from?

A vast majority of research and develop (R&D) funding in the United States comes from federal tax revenues allocated to various agencies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) makes up nearly half the science R&D funding in the United States each year with a budget of approximately $30 Billion. The NIH provides funding to government and university scientists who are interested in health and biomedical fields such as cancer, mental health, and drug development. Another smaller ($7.5 Billion) but vital source of non-medical science funding comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF). There are a few other agencies, seen below, that also provide important funding to other fields of science and engineering.

Science Explained for the People Funding it, USA science funding agencies, AAAS
USA science funding agencies, source: AAAS

 

Are my research allocated tax dollars doing something useful?

All this research funding pays off! Aside from creating tens-of-thousands of jobs in the USA and providing a return-on-investment of 121% within 12 months, life saving and life changing discoveries come about every year from the work it funds (links for 2015 breakthroughs). By numerous measures, the USA leads the world in publications and citations, produces the highest quality publications, and, until recently, was the greatest country in the world for science (China ranked number 1 in 2014 when USA fell to 2). While R&D in America is not perfect, with an oversupply of talented young PhD holders for lowly paying research jobs and a recently shrinking budget, it’s pretty damn good.

How do I find out what I’m funding?

However, you, as a member of the public, probably find it difficult to know what your tax dollars are going towards. Many scientific journals have very expensive subscription rates to access their publications which you funded. Furthermore, open-access publications often cost the scientists hundreds of dollars more to publish. For example, it may cost a researcher $1,700 to publish a closed-access paper but $2,800 to publish the same paper as open-access in the same journal. Not only that, large publishers make profits to the tune of over a billion dollars per year publishing tax funded research. Even when papers are open-access, or become available to the public after 12-months as mandated by the NIH and NSF, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a member of the public to get through all the scientific jargon. Professional scientists will often take an hour or more to read and re-read a single paper.

There are of course many science websites that popularize impactful or quirky research findings but they are often written to generate clicks rather than explain the science and their implications. Secondly, these websites often make it sound like scientific breakthroughs will change the world within a few days when findings often take years to make an impact on society (such as getting FDA approval for drugs or medical devices or applying for patents). Finally, thousands of interesting papers, understandably, go unnoticed.

So, how can we get the science the public is funding to the people?

I propose, and will follow my own proposal on this page, that scientists should write a short piece on their articles that is at a level accessible to a high school student. (If any scientists are interested I will gladly host your pieces here if you don’t have the way to do so.) Sadly, America’s children are falling behind in schooling compared to the rest of the developed world. In 2012, American 15-year-olds ranked 27th in math, 17th in reading, and 20th in science. Providing digestible articles on novel research could boost scientific understanding and literacy. And while most Americans believe science is a good thing (79%) and is a good investment (71%), when it comes to understanding science the public belief is often skewed from the scientific consensus (PEW Research Center). For example 88% of scientists think GMOs are generally safe while only 37% of the public does. Some do not even know what GMO stands for. 87% of scientists believe humans caused the rapid climate change we are seeing today, while only 50% of the public does.

“There is this really strong conventional wisdom that the U.S. is experiencing some kind of creeping anti-science sensibility in the public, and this explains why we have conflicts over things like climate change or evolution” –Dan Kahan

The Atlantic states the problem as, “American’s believe in science, they just don’t believe its findings.” While people love the technologies and products that come out of science, such as the many NASA spin-offs, people often don’t “believe” tested, evidence-based scientific theories. I don’t totally blame them either. Throwing evidence based findings at people will do little to change their mind; especially if those findings go against their religious or political ideologies. Rather, science is a process of investigation. Informing citizens of how discoveries are made is vastly more important than what discoveries are made.

“Vaccines do not cause autism” is not entirely convincing. However, saying, “the vaccine history and mercury-compound (thimerosal) dosing levels of 200 children with autism (ASD) and 200 kids without autism were collected and a statistical t-test was done to see if ASD children had more vaccines or more thimerosal exposure. No link was found” can have more impact.

Many “political” issues we face today involve some sort of science, such as if global climate change in man made, vaccines, GMOs, and even abortions. Some of which would not be issues if the scientific findings on the topics were accepted by the public. Additionally, despite science and technology being the engines of the future, politicians so rarely discuss true science and technology issues such as what to do about anthropomorphic climate change, genome editing, and artificial intelligence. Finally, people can make more informed decision in their daily lives and better recognize fraudulent, evidence lacking claims made by snake oil salesmen like Dr. Oz (1,2,3) and Deepak Chopra (1,2,3), non-regulated supplements, and bogus hardware. If people know how things work they will be more empowered than simply being told (rightly or wrongly) that something works.

Hopefully, by explaining not only scientific findings but also how they were found and why they were being investigated, the public can get a better understanding of what goes into the projects which they fund. Furthermore, by showing people how findings were discovered, a two fold benefit could be achieved: Scientific literacy may be increased and trust in scientific findings could be improved. We need a scientifically informed electorate to progress both the nation and the human species. I hope my efforts are a small step in this direction.

 

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Brain rhythms may help us learn! (Coming Soon)

  • Lara M. Rangel, Jon W. Rueckemann, Pamela D. Riverère, Katie R. Keefe, Blake S. Porter, Ian S. Heimbuch, Carl H. Budlong, and Howard Eichenbaum. Rhythmic coordination of hippocampal neurons during associative memory processing. eLife. 11 January 2016. 5:e09849. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.09849. Open Access.