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Scientific Research Funding

One of the recent steps in rebuilding Iraq has been creating a national science program. This program was started by exiled Iraqi scientists and is quickly gaining members and stability. While this may seem to be a small step for Iraq, funding and conducting scientific research is an important role for any government both to foster prosperity within its borders and to project power outside them. In the United States today, a majority of new scientific research is funded by the government, in areas ranging from the outbreak of AIDS and other diseases, to missile defense systems and issues of national security. The question that is facing scientists now is not how to get money for scientific research, but instead what impact that money has on the research that is conducted. In order to answer that question, we must first look to the sources of scientific funding in the United States; then at who conducts research in the United States; and, finally, what impact money has on science.

Before continuing any further, it is important to determine what exactly "research" is and what kinds of research exist. There are two categories of research conducted in the United States: basic and applied. Basic research is generally defined as research solely for the sake of knowledge, whereas applied research generally deals with the practical applications and viability of knowledge. This means that when a scientist discovers a new virus, the basic research is determining things like its protein structure and makeup, whereas the applied research involves determining whether it can be used as a cure for an existing virus or creating vaccinations for the virus.

In 2004, the Office of Management and Budget reported that the federal government had budgeted to spend $122 billion on scientific research (both basic and applied), development, and equipment and facilities. This includes spending in the Departments of Energy, Defense, Agriculture, Transportation, and Homeland Security, as well as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and NASA. Of this money, almost half ($53.9 billion) was designated for basic and applied research in various areas. Of the federal funds allocated for science research, $90 billion (or about 75% of the federal research money) is spent on defense and national security annually, and approximately $32.7 billion dollars is spent on agricultural and health-related research. In addition to this $32.7 billion, the private industry, mostly through pharmaceutical companies, spends an estimated $24 billion per year on medical research to search for new medicines and new uses for old ones.

In addition to examining sources of research funding, it is important to determine who is conducting the research. The majority of research conducted in the United States, especially basic research, is done by universities and colleges across the country. Johns Hopkins University, University of Washington, Stanford, University of Michigan and University of California San Diego are the five largest research institutions in the country. However, applied medical research (discovering cures for diseases and new medicines) is generally conducted by the private industry. According to a recent report released by, the pharmaceutical industry uses its $24 billion to develop more than 90% of all new medicines. The National Institutes of Health spends $14 billion each year on biomedical research, and combined with universities, discovers the other 10 percent of FDA-approved medicines. The implications of this are clear: the government funds, and academia conducts, virtually all basic research (knowledge for the sake of knowledge) in the country, and the private industry funds and conducts virtually all of the applied (for-profit) research. This is a natural division because the purpose of academia is the gathering of knowledge, whereas the purpose of private industries is making money.

However, this is not to say that money does not matter in the world of basic research or academia. This is true for three basic reasons. First, academia does not solely receive funding from the federal government; colleges and universities, especially private ones, raise millions of dollars for research from donors and the private industry. Second, federal money does come with strings attached. Federally funded experiments and research are subject to massive amounts of bureaucratic regulation and oversight, sometimes even more so than money from private industries. Finally, members of academia are now increasingly involved in the private sector. This means that when a professor is doing basic research, often s/he will have a stake in the applied research (control of a patent for a medicine, for example) that occurs after the basic research is complete. These three factors mean that, even in basic research, funding is not free from profit motives or federal regulation, and the research is not necessarily a pure drive for more knowledge.

What is the role of money in scientific research? For the private industry, the goal is to invest in research where the results will make enough money to cover all the costs of research and development, as well as generating a significant profit. If learning about malaria is profitable, a private company will learn a lot about malaria. However, if learning how to prevent hair loss is profitable, companies will target that instead.

When it comes to academia and government-funded researchers, discovering the role of the dollar is much trickier. For the most part, scientists follow the scientific method, meaning that their work is objective, and either has been, or can be, reproduced by their peers. Therefore, money and profit do not play such large role. Recently, however, there have been two problems developing in the basic research and government-funded segments of the scientific community. First, money is gaining a role because of the conflicts of interest that professors can face when conducting research even at the basic level, and certainly at the applied level. Sheldon Krimsky argues in his book, "Science in the Private Interest," that academia and basic research are being sold to the highest bidder because professors and universities stand to make or lose large sums of money based on the outcomes of their research. In order to solve this problem, many scientific journals now require authors to publish any stake they have in their research. This is generally seen as enough of a solution to eliminate conflicts of interest because they are then known, discoverable and correctable.

On the government side, science faces a similar problem; however, it has more to do with the politicization of science than the purchasing of results. This means that when a governmental agency attempts to determine the value of new findings, it is starting from a set perspective. New abortion procedures to people who are already pro-life are simply ‘more efficient ways to kill unborn babies,' whereas to pro-choice advocates they are safer, less intrusive ways of protecting the choices and health of mothers. Thus when government agencies ask "What does the science say?" they are often not asking "What should my point of view be, based on the current research?" but instead are asking, "How can I make the current research support my point of view?"

Despite these problems, basic research is still a generally objective and ethical field of work. Scientists work to discover "truth" and gather knowledge to help people, as well as to make money. Applied research, on the other hand, tends to be more of a profit-driven business, and sometimes seeking scientific advancement and helping the most people are not the ventures that make the most money. Despite these differences, however, both basic and applied research projects have worked in conjunction to produce a vast number of scientific and medical advances over the past few decades.

Submitted by: Eric Buescher, Fall 2003 intern