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Science on Tap: Experts discuss the politics of research funding

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For most Americans, the only time to argue about shrimp is when the waiter at Friday’s messes up the order, or when an overzealous sibling reaches over the table and steals a piece. But for American lawmakers there seems to be an exception to the rule.

In 2004, Dr. Lou Burnett was in his lab studying how changes in the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide affect shrimp’s ability to fight off infections. To complete the research, he received a grant from the National Science Foundation for approximately half-a-million dollars. Being resourceful like many of his peers he built a treadmill for the shrimp from scraps (old truck inner tube for the tread, skateboard bearings, and a used pump motor) and cost only about $50 which he paid for out of his own pocket, and an updated version cost about $1,000 and was built from scratch. The treadmill Burnett built for the study looked like a scaled down version of the treadmills we use submerged in a small tank.

Hearing that scientists like Dr. Burnett were putting shrimp on treadmills, many conservative lawmakers took issue with the scientists involved with the study. In a scathing 2011 report blasting the NSF, “Under the Microscope,” Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) called Burnett’s project waste of government money. While the report did clearly state the findings, that shrimp dealing with an infection would be less active and might be limited in their ability to migrate, find food, and avoid being eaten, they failed to recognize the bigger implications thereby dealing in half-truths. And if this was not a half-truth and a genuine case of not understanding the implications of such a finding (unstable ecosystems, a heavily damaged seafood market), then that is a problem in and of itself.

After the Wall Street fiasco and eventual recession in 2008 where the government had authorized $700 billion of taxpayer money to help the banks recover from their own risky decisions, it must have been hard to watch the government spend money on frivolous things. Unemployment was skyrocketing, reaching an average of 9.6% in 2010. It is understandable that uninformed people could be upset about seemingly ridiculous spending by the government. However, shrimp are an incredibly important species in not only our oceans ecosystems, but they are almost, if not equally, as important for our economic ecosystem. In a 2012 report by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), they detailed that shrimp are a “Key U.S. Commercial Species” and that shellfish generated $2.7 billion and that shrimp specifically were responsible for $490 million. The study found that low oxygen levels in the water significantly increased the number of bacteria in the shrimp’s tissues, which then ends up on our dinner plates and in our bodies.

After completing and publishing his work in the June 2005 issue of The Biological Bulletin, Burnett went on to defend his study in numerous publications, even making TV appearances on morning talk shows like NBC’s “The Today Show.”

Science on Tap

Just a few hundred feet away from the Hudson river at the Albany Pump House a group of about 80 citizens from the Albany area gathered to listen to a panel discussion with four University at Albany Researchers. It’s one of many monthly meetings that UAlbany anthropologist Dr. Cara Ocobock has put together in the capital region to help create discourse with the public. The topic: Government funding.

About a year ago, the House passed a bill called the H.R. 3293 Scientific Research in the National Interest Act. The act says that the NSF can only award federal funding for basic research and education in the sciences if the grant promotes the progress of science in the United States. The words “national interest” is not necessarily a problem, but when using the phrase “national interest” it asks two questions: what is the national interest and who is deciding what the national interest is?

The bill was passed on party lines with only two democrats voting in favor of it, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL). Rep. Grayson’s argument for the bill is that the bill “recognizes that there is such a thing as practical science that can solve problems and improve the lives of people.” The scientific community isn’t buying it. “This is a way to make an argument that ‘oh because you’re not involved in cyber security or whatever it maybe, that your own research is not in the national interest,’” says Dr. Gordon. “…it may sound silly, but it’s a mechanism for people who are opposed to certain types of science to defund those realms of science, and that’s a very dangerous thing.”

This bill puts the NSF in the spotlight, which was started to fund basic research. Many times, basic research is carried out by graduate students and young scientists. Because of a domestic disinterest in the STEM fields in the United States, many colleges are filled with international students that come here to study in those programs. “When you look at issues with immigration, and that’s why of course when they tell you about the travel bans and temporary things, you hear the loudest noise from tech companies that rely so heavily on foreigners who can get to this country because they can compete better than domestic students,” said Dr. Robert Keesee also of UAlbany, but was not involved in the panel. “If the domestic workforce isn’t trained to do that or motivated to do that then the money goes to people who are from elsewhere. They’ll come because they’ll get paid more here than what they’ll get paid in the other countries, but if these foreign workers can’t come, then companies can just leave and say we can’t get the labor force I need here.”

Although this is about funding and not immigration, the idea is the same: If we don’t fund basic scientific research we are not attracting the next generation of technology entrepreneurs and we drive an entire sector of our economy out. “Not only will not funding basic research not bring those people in, the best and brightest will leave and we will get a brain drain in this country. That won’t be good for anyone living here,” says Dr. Adam Gordon, an anthropologist who sat on the panel.

The U.S. doesn’t have a strong domestic technology workforce because in the U.S. there’s a general lack of preparation and interest for these undergraduate courses. “STEM is hard work,” said Dr. Keesee. “and it’s a matter of students not wanting to do the hard work. There’s other easier ways to make more money.”

Basic research has birthed some of the most influential and powerful inventions of our time. No one could have said what the use of binary numbers were when they were being researched, but now they are the basis of all our computers. The same could be said for the internet. In the early 1960’s computer scientists developed something called “packet switching,” which easily allowed for the transmission of electronic data. By the late 60’s the Department of Defense funded research into the creation of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). They used packet switching to allow multiple computers to communicate on a single network, which was the very first prototype of the internet. In 1860 you could have said that Gregor Mendel was a kook playing with pea plants in his garden, but his simple experiment with those plants helped Mendel discover the basic laws of genes and inheritance which laid the foundation for all sorts of discoveries including genetic engineering, the origins of different genetic defects like Downs Syndrome or Sickle Cell Anemia, stem cells, and gene therapy to name just a few. The list goes on and on.

Two things to remember when it comes to government funding is that it comes from the government and we live in a democracy. “We have to follow the golden rule; he who has the gold makes the rule,” said Dr. Gary Kleppel an agricultural biologist who sat on the panel. If the people decide they don’t want to fund it, then they don’t have to fund it. There lies the problem according to sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Popp-Berman; there is a fundamental tension between science and democracy. Should politicians be making the decisions, or a small handful of skilled professionals?

Education is Key

The tension between science and democracy is there because of the question of whether a large group of unknowledgeable elected politicians or a small group of trained professionals should make the funding decisions. Although this is a long-term fix, there is a way to fix this problem: teach science.

“Kids that grow up excited about science will grow into adults that are excited about science,” said Dr. Gordon. “This is maybe getting a little far afield, but its critical in early education for everyone in this country, whether they’re a citizen of this country or not, to get the next generation of kids to care about learning about science.” The more we teach STEM in early education, the more scientifically literate the population will be. Dr. Berman believes that this will allow to “…have more and more people who are not necessarily a part of the scientific community to have active input to maybe bring perspectives that aren’t going to be seen from within the scientific community.”

Although raising science loving children is a long-term strategy, according to Dr. Gordon there are other shorter-term solutions to this as well. It’s easy to point fingers and blame the opposition, but there is a consensus among scientists that there is a lot of responsibility on the science communities end to try and reach out and show everyone that they’re human beings as well. “We need to explain why basic science is important and start demystifying the process of science. We’re not just in our lab coats working on our benches 24/7, what we’re doing has an impact,” said atmospheric scientist Dr. Kristina Corbosiero. “We need to talk about our science in a way that reaches a broader audience and make ourselves as scientists more accessible.”

“We have to tell our stories to make people understand. Not dumbing it down, not speaking down, not simplifying it to the point where it’s not interesting, but to make it look interesting,” said Dr. Kleppel. “I think what we need to have is people saying ‘science is just a hoot!’ and that’s when we found how to connect with people.”

As inconsequential as shrimp may seem, they are the backbone of massive ecosystems. As for science? One might be able to say the same.



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