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A peek behind the science curtain

Bethany Brookshire

Scicurious


Scicurious

Most Americans like science — and are willing to pay for it

Once people know how little the U.S. spends on science, they support more funding

U.S. fish and wildlife service biologist banding a northern pintail duck

U.S. taxpayer dollars go to fund science projects from weather tracking to duck monitoring. But most people have no idea how much — or rather, how little — government money goes to scientific research.

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Americans don’t hate science. Quite the contrary. In fact, 79 percent of Americans think science has made their lives easier, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found. More than 60 percent of people also believe that government funding for science is essential to its success.

But should the United States spend more money on scientific research than it already does? A layperson’s answer to that question depends on how much that person thinks the government already spends on science, a new study shows. When people find out just how much — or rather, how little — of the federal budget goes to science, support for more funding suddenly jumps.

To see how people’s opinions of public science spending were influenced by accurate information, mechanical engineer Jillian Goldfarb and political scientist Douglas Kriner, both at Boston University, placed a small experiment into the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. The online survey was given to 1,000 Americans, carefully selected to represent the demographics of the United States. The questions were designed to be nonpartisan, and the survey itself was conducted in 2014, long before the 2016 election.

The survey was simple. First, participants were asked to estimate what percentage of the federal budget was spent on scientific research. Once they’d guessed, half of the participants were told the actual amount that the federal government allocates for nondefense spending on research and development. In 2014, that figure was 1.6 percent of the budget, or about $67 billion. Finally, all the participants were asked if federal spending on science should be increased, decreased or kept the same.

The majority of participants had no idea how much money the government spends on science, and wildly overestimated the actual amount. About half of the respondents estimated federal spending for research at somewhere between 5 and 20 percent of the budget. A quarter of participants estimated that figure was 20 percent of the budget — one very hefty chunk of change. The last 25 percent of respondents estimated that 1 to 2 percent of federal spending went to science.

When participants received no information about how much the United States spent on research, only about 40 percent of them supported more funding. But when they were confronted with the real numbers, support for more funding leapt from 40 to 60 percent.

Those two numbers hover on either side of 50 percent, but Kriner notes, “media coverage [would] go from ‘minority’ to ‘majority’” in favor of more funding — a potentially powerful message. What’s more, the support for science was present in Democrats and Republicans alike, Kriner and Goldfarb report February 1 in Science Communication.

“I think it contributes to our understanding of the aspects of federal spending that people don’t understand very well,” says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H. It’s not surprising that most people don’t know how much the government is spending on research. Nyhan points out that most people probably don’t know how much the government spends on education or foreign aid either.

When trying to gather more support for science funding, Goldfarb says, “tell people how little we spend, and how much they get in return.” Science as a whole isn’t that controversial. No one wants to stop exploring the universe or curing diseases, after all.

But when people — whether politicians or that guy in your Facebook feed — say they want to cut science funding, they won’t be speaking about science as a whole. “There’s a tendency to overgeneralize” and use a few controversial or perceived-to-be-wasteful projects to stand in for all of science, Nyhan warns.

When politicians want to cut funding, he notes, they focus on specific controversial studies or areas — such as climate change, stem cells or genetically modified organisms. They might highlight studies that seem silly, such as those that ended up in former Senator Tom Coburn’s “Wastebook,” (a mantle now taken up Senator Jeff Flake). Take those issues to the constituents, and funding might end up in jeopardy anyway.

Kriner hopes their study’s findings might prove useful even for controversial research areas. “One of the best safeguards against cuts is strong public support for a program,” he explains. “Building public support for science spending may help insulate it from budget cuts — and our research suggests a relatively simple way to increase public support for scientific research.”

But he worries that public support may not stay strong if science becomes too much of a political pawn. The study showed that both Republicans and Democrats supported more funding for science when they knew how little was spent. But “if the current administration increases its attacks on science spending writ large … it could potentially politicize federal support for all forms of scientific research,” Kriner says. And the stronger the politics, the more people on both sides of the aisle grow resistant to hearing arguments from the other side.

Politics aside, Goldfarb and Kriner’s data show that Americans really do like and support science. They want to pay for it. And they may even want to shell out some more money, when they know just how little they already spend.

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