banner by Daniel Walsh

The Politics Behind Science Funding

by Ashley Frye

If you plan on pursuing a career in research after graduation, it’s often easy to forget that to do research you actually need funding.  For the majority of public universities, somewhere between 80-90 percent of the funding for scientific research comes either directly from the federal government or from governmental grants. It is nearly impossible for laboratories to survive on private funding alone, and even small cuts in federal funding can be devastating not only to scientific progress, but to the livelihood of Principal Investigators and researchers who rely on federal money to continue their work.

Knowing that the majority of the funding for new technology, medicine and scientific theories comes from an entity that is constantly changing personnel brings up an interesting question: do the political changes on Capitol Hill cause fluctuation in the amount of money labs receive?

The answer is simple: yes.

Political leadership actually has a huge impact on science funding, and the coming years could see a huge shift in the quantity of grants and where money is allocated. An area where this change in power may be especially important is stem cell research. Stem cell research is a relatively new field that could have profound effects in the medical world. At the University of Southern California, a man who was once paralyzed underwent stem cell therapy and eventually recovered movement in his hands. Stem cells are currently being studied to be incorporated into therapy for cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases, renal failure, type 1 diabetes mellitus, lung disease and gastrointestinal issues. Another potentially huge aspect of stem cell research is the idea of precision or “personalized” medicine. The goal of this specific research is to have killer cells derived from stem cells target cancerous tumors based on an individual’s genotype. Theoretically, an individual’s genome would be sequenced, and a unique treatment would be designed.

 In 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order that prevented any further federal funding from going towards embryonic stem line research. This measure forced several labs and principal researches to reduce their work, and had profound international ramifications. Before that point American researchers had been collaborating with international counterparts to lead the globe in stem cell research, but with the new restrictions and loss of funding, scientists from the U.S. were no longer valuable contributors.

Only a few months after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama passed an executive order of his own to reverse Bush’s stem cell policy. This action allowed scientists greater freedom in the number of embryonic stem cells they were allowed to work with and loosened the restrictions on federal funding.

President Donald Trump is expected to align more with Bush’s in terms of views on stem cell research. Though Trump has not publicly given a clear indication of his beliefs, Vice President Mike Pence has stated on numerous occasions that he is morally opposed to stem cell research and does not support taxpayer money allocated to it. Based on both Pence’s views and the conservatives’ history of not supporting stem cell research, the scientific community is expecting extreme budget cuts on a field that is finally starting to see concrete progress in therapies and treatments.

 Perhaps the largest funding cuts are expected to occur in field of climate change research. Though Obama had some missteps in his clean energy funding, he enabled a large number of power facilities to run on clean and renewable energy through federal grants. He also initiated legislature to reduce carbon emissions and placed restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. In 2011, under the Obama administration, more than $16 billion was allocated to projects focused on renewable energy.

It would not be surprising to see a dip in the amount of funding for clean energy projects, given that Trump has openly claimed climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China. Though more than half of Americans want to see federal funding go towards clean energy, Trump has already moved to dismantle some of the restrictions of companies’ emissions and wishes to see the country move towards using more coal as an energy source.

As much as we want to believe that science is a strictly objective field built around research and facts, it is undeniable that the funding behind it comes from personal or political party based judgements and beliefs. Given the current, sharply divisive political climate and the beginning of the term of a new president, it is unrealistic to expect areas of government funding to be immune from changes. Though it is difficult to know the degree of impact such a drastic ideological change in government will have on the scientific community, it is indisputable that will we observe a shift in the years to come.