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Science & the Public

Obama worried about research funding

The president expressed concerns in an NAS birthday address

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Barack Obama offered yet another argument about why the current federal-budget stalemate is so risky: “[T]he sequester, as it’s known in Washington-speak — it’s hitting our scientific research.” As things now stand, “we could lose a year, two years of scientific research as a practical matter, because of misguided priorities here in this town.”

That was the president’s warning to researchers and policymakers in an address, April 29, before the National Academy of Sciences. He was there to help celebrate that august body’s 150th birthday.

“America remains a world leader in patents and scientific discovery,” Obama told the attendees.  U.S. universities represent “the crown jewel of our economy as well as our civilization.” But much funding for new research comes from the federal coffers. And tightening the purse strings, he argued, risks slowing the pace of discovery and the protection of intellectual property that drives the U.S. economy.

Indeed, as an academic geneticist remarked to me just this past weekend, even before the sequester, grant money had become amazingly tight. That neighbor has lately been applying for National Science Foundation grants. Yet the programs where his type of research might qualify for funding now possesses only enough money to finance 7 percent of incoming proposals. Or it did. That was before the sequester. Moreover, the tenured scientist pointed out, it’s become increasingly hard for researchers under 45 — even those with a robust publication record — to get money to investigate new ideas. The government just persists in “funding more of the same,” he lamented.

The president also charged in his NAS address that direct political interference by Congress has been fettering the development of new knowledge. Said Obama: It’s imperative that “we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us.” The United States has “got to protect our rigorous peer review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars . . . [And] make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process.”

Fine words. But Obama gave no explicit examples from his science & engineering soapbox. It’s fair to guess he was alluding to efforts by various elected officials to limit further investment in climate change studies, renewable energy technologies and proposals for outside-the-box basic research — the type of high-risk but also potentially high-payoff investigations from which transformative developments most often emerge.

One thing about which there can be little controversy: a need to encourage ever more K-12 students to embrace science and engineering. Some have and are already garnering a national reputation for it. Obama gave a shout-out to a few notable examples from among the 100 kids that his staff invited to take part, last week, in the third White House Science Fair. It wasn’t a competition. More of an exhibition really — sort of a national cross-section of amazing research by teens.

“I know you guys were smart when you were their age,” the president said to researchers at the NAS birthday celebration. But those kids at the White House, last week, “I might give them the edge. I mean, you had young people who were converting algae into sustainable biofuels — that was one of my favorites, because the young lady, she kept the algae under her bed.” Added the president, with a chuckle: “I pictured it bubbling out and starting to creep into the hallways.”

Obama was referring to Sara Volz. The 17-year-old senior from Colorado Springs, Colo., took home the $100,000 grand prize, last month, for that research at the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search (a competition established by Science News’ parent organization, 71 years ago, and still administered by us).

And then there were the kids who developed a way to purify water with bicycle-power-generated batteries, the president noted, and a boy who had already devised a faster, cheaper test for cancer. And “these are 15, 16-year-olds,” Obama observed.

Fourteen percent of the students at this year’s White House Science Fair were finalists or semifinalists in competitions that Society for Science & the Public runs. You can read more about these amazing teens in a story posted last week at Science News for Kids. And one measure of their contributions: A large share of such teen competitors now patent their developments. It’s something Science News for Kids explored in a story almost six weeks ago.

But we can only reasonably expect to keep kids in the pipeline to become professional researchers if there will be jobs at the other end. Drying up the grant money is one way to turn off the spigot. So is giving most of the money to the same small community of investigators. Research is a powerful investment that pays rich dividends — both in terms of our future and that of our kids. Shouldn't we try to divorce politics from it?

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