Guest post by Dillon R. Gardner, PhD candidate in experimental physics, and Vice President of MIT’s Science Policy Initiative.
This spring the MIT Science Policy Initiative traveled to Washington, DC, to participate in Congressional Visits Day. Run by the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group, this annual event is an effort by scientists and engineers to engage with their Congressional representatives. This year we worked to impress upon members of Congress the importance of sustaining federal “funding” of basic research.
I use quotes on “funding” because this was the term I had intended to use in our rehearsed spiel. After the first meeting, with Congressman Bill Cassidy (R-LA), it immediately became apparent that this word was a mistake. Representative Cassidy told us that although he was in favor of federally supported research, control of the federal deficit and mandatory spending must be our highest priority.
How might that conversation have been different if we’d made a simple linguistic substitute, discussing federal “investment” in basic research, as opposed to federal “funding”? Given Representative Cassidy’s response, which was echoed in many congressional offices, it is clear that scientists and engineers must reframe the conversation. The money spent on basic research creates knowledge that is valuable in its own right, but it is also a necessary prelude for the innovation that maintains a vibrant economy and society in the long term.
In common usage, the words “funding” and “investment” are nearly interchangeable—but, as I was reminded on that trip to Washington, there are key differences. Merriam-Webster defines the former as an amount of money used for a special purpose, whereas the latter is an outlay of money usually for income or profit. The first connotes one-time spending without a return; the second necessitates the expectation of future gains. In the business world, companies invest in their R&D—they do not fund it. Adopting that term is a small and easy way in which scientists can convince policymakers and the public of the imperative for basic research.
By our nature, scientists and engineers tend to resist entering the political fray. But we must recognize this is a climate in which legitimate science is attacked as government waste. In his 2011 publication, The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) pilloried a variety of NSF-sponsored research as fleecing taxpayers. Sarah Palin, during her vice-presidential campaign, cited fruit fly research as the sort of systemic government waste that needed to be fixed. This type of grandstanding diminishes the understanding that basic research leads to long-term benefits well worth the taxpayers’ dollars.
Next time I’m on Capitol Hill, I will say the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation invest in my research on how atoms vibrate in a crystal lattice. Better understanding these vibrations and how they transport energy can help develop materials that transform waste heat from industrial processes into usable electricity. There is no guarantee my particular efforts will lead to any breakthrough. But researchers across the country work tirelessly to ensure that the investment society puts in our work will pay off in ways that none of us, perhaps, have yet imagined.