What is public science, and why do you need it?

Did you use a browser to zoom around on the internet today? Have you ever been vaccinated? If you answered yes to either of those questions, your life has already been made better through publicly-funded science in America. Public science is basic scientific research funded by governments, and just in America alone it's led to breakthroughs in everything from medicine to clean energy. But now public science is under threat. Here's why — and why we can't afford to lose it.

The US government has pledged to deal with the nation's debt crisis by cutting social spending. On the chopping block are many many social programs, including some of the country's most important government-funded science institutions like the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NASA's budget has already been slashed, eliminating thousands of jobs and threatening to kill the launch of the James Webb telescope that would replace the aging Hubble. NSF Funding was cut this year by $53 million. President Obama's requests for a larger NSF budget have been turned down for 2011 and 2012 — in fact, NSF funds were cut in 2011 down to $6.81 billion for the year, despite Obama's request for a billion dollar funding boost.

What is public science, and why do you need it?S

As Nature reported earlier this month, science agencies are already set to lose money in 2012 (see Nature's chart). Some areas of research will hurt more than others — more money will be allocated to projects on "cybersecurity," for example, while funding for climate research at NOAA will be cut. In addition, science agencies face even steeper cuts in 2013 and 2014, when the next round of budget cuts is slated to take effect.

If the recently-appointed Congressional supercommittee tasked with creating a budget fails to come up with a satisfactory proposal by November 23, there will be "global cuts" that Nature explains in detail:

Such an outcome would be catastrophic, says [American Physical Society representative Michael] Lubell. According to his back-of-the-envelope calculation, the automatic cut would slash funding for science agencies by 11%, starting in 2013. For the Department of Energy's $5-billion Office of Science, even shutting down a national laboratory - for example Fermilab, the particle-physics laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, with its $300-million annual budget - would achieve only part of the mandated savings. Granting agencies such as the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) would have to lower their grant-acceptance rates to single digits. The knock-on effect would be catastrophic for universities, which depend on grants to help cover post doctoral researchers and infrastructure costs. "Can universities make up that gap? Not a chance," says Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities, based in Washington DC, an advocate for the largest research universities.

This scenario will only come to pass if the supercommittee fails to come up with a budget plan, or if Congress votes it down. Still, Lubell's comments underscore the precarious situation of publicly-funded science in the US right now. This is a situation that scientists face today in the UK, where deep cuts threaten to eliminate major parts of that country's space and physics programs, and to downsize university science departments.

Cutting science funding is a way of killing our future. And yet there are a number of political arguments in favor of cutting science funding — some of which are myths based on ideology or misunderstandings rather than facts. We deal with a few of these below.

MYTH: Public science is a partisan issue, and Republicans have always opposed science funding in America.

FACT: Historically, Republicans have been on the forefront of creating public funds for basic science research. One of the agencies that's most endangered by budget cuts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was established by Republican President Richard Nixon. Though this agency has done some of the most important work to uncover the dangers of environmental hazards like the growing ozone hole, Democratic President Barak Obama argued just over a week ago that key elements of the agency's work need to go.

What is public science, and why do you need it?S

The National Science Foundation has been a darling of Republicans since its founding in the 1950s. Under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, funding for NSF doubled, and the administration praised the role of basic science research. Indeed, the last time we saw cuts to science funding comparable to those over the past few years, it was during the Democratic Clinton Administration.

Today, some politicians are arguing that science funding should bear the brunt of the coming budget cuts. Republican Senator Tom Coburn has sponsored an extensive study of how NSF's funding is "wasteful." But many politicians, from both parties, still support science funding, and historically Republicans have worked hand-in-hand with Democrats to expand budgets for science research of all kinds, from environmental science to medicine.

MYTH: Grants from publicly-funded agencies like NSF and NIH wind up funding useless and questionable forms of research.

FACT: Over the past couple of years, politicians have been calling out government-funded science, claiming that taxpayer money is going into dubious scientific pursuits. Let's address a few of them.

Recently, there was a media scandal over how the NIH had supposedly funded a study on "gay men's penis sizes." A number of news organizations reported the news as fact, when not only was it a misrepresentation of the study — which was focused on gay male sexual health — but also was not funded by the NIH. The researcher who conducted the study was funded by the NIH for other projects leading to his advanced degree, but his study of gay men's health was done on his own time. This kind of kerfuffle is a result of a profound misunderstanding of how funding works. Many graduate students in the sciences get funding to complete their degrees from the NIH and NSF, among other agencies. But they also conduct research on their own, related to their chosen field of study but not required to receive a degree. Receiving money from a government funding agency does not mean that all research you do is funded by the government.

Meanwhile, in his NSF report, Senator Coburn argues that we should cut NSF because NSF-funded researchers at McMurdo Station in Antarctica are known to spend their spare time jello wrestling. He's referring to a single incident, where an official at McMurdo was fired for organizing a jello wrestling match among the small crew of researchers who spend the year in Antarctica studying everything from astrophysics and Earth sciences, to zoology and paleontology. One ill-advised off-duty incident doesn't prove that the station's research is wasteful.

What is public science, and why do you need it?S

Here's the truth: the NIH has funded research that led to 130 Nobel Prizes, and recently funded research that led to the first cancer vaccine. Here are some highlights from the research they funded in 2010 alone. And the NSF has sponsored research that led to 180 Nobel Prizes. Over the past few years, NSF has contributed to research that has made major strides in health, energy efficiency, and exploration. The NSF funded one of the very first web browsers in the 1990s, and is currently funding the development of next-generation robotics. NSF and its sister science agencies are investing in technologies that could one day transform the world.

MYTH: If we cut government spending on the sciences, private funders will step up to fill in the gaps, and they'll do it without all that wasteful spending.

FACT: Private investors fuel innovation all the time, but the very nature of business investments precludes most investors' ability to pay for basic research. Investors usually need a return on their investments in the short term, and most basic research projects take decades to result in something that can be sold in the marketplace — indeed, some kinds of research, like space travel, may require generations before they become profitable. And research into atmospheric changes may save the human species, but never make any money at all.

The other problem with private funding is that it can bias basic research. In the 1990s, tobacco industry leader Philip Morris funded scientific studies "proving" that smoking isn't harmful, and tried to legislate away studies that showed the harms. And pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline was sued in New York for fraud because the company didn't release data showing their bestselling drug Paxil increased the risk of suicide in young people (the company settled). The point is that corporations naturally have their own interests to protect — interests that can't underwrite open, basic science research.

What is public science, and why do you need it?S

Government-funded science isn't exactly bias-free, but it can and has provided a check on the biases of privately-funded science. Basic scientific research is a public good, like education and roads. It is a long-term investment in our country's future, and the future of our planet.

This article is part of Public Science Triumphs, an ongoing series that io9 will be running over the next few months in partnership with several other publications that cover the sciences. On November 23, Congress has pledged that its budget supercommittee will present a proposal for US$1.2 trillion in cuts to government spending. That will be the moment of truth for publicly-funded science institutions. Until then, we offer this series in the hope that you and our government representatives will remember that science is a non-partisan public good, which enriches both local and global economies — as well as improving human life.

Do you have a story about how publicly-funded science is making the world a better place? Contact us at tips@io9.com, with the subject line "public science triumphs," and tell us about it.