The Politics of Science Funding

Oct 15, 2012

The money available for science research — and how it can be used — is often determined by politics.
Credit UCNISS / Flickr

While it may not be the issue that decides elections, funding for scientific research is a fundamentally political beast. Take, for example, President George W. Bush's 2004 manned space exploration initiative - an overhaul of NASA's priorities aimed at putting American men and women back on the moon and, eventually, on Mars. Or there's Sarah Palin's somewhat notorious comments during the 2008 presidential campaign mocking biomedical research using fruit flies and calling it a waste of taxpayer dollars.

But perhaps the best-known example is that of human embryonic stem cell research. In 2001, President George W. Bush banned the use of federal funds for research that required the destruction of human embryos. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that relaxed the Bush-era restrictions saying they unfairly inhibited scientific progress. Whether or not that move was legal is a question that continues working it’s way through the courts.

Not all research is so controversial, but most academic research is funded by government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. Those agencies, in turn, get their funding from the federal budget set by Congress and the President. That means that the amount of money available and what it can be used for is determined by politics.

Dr. Susan Avery, President and Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Dr. Eric Davidson, Executive Director of Woods Hole Research Center, talked about how their organizations navigate the maze of science politics.