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Scientific Research Funding

An Interview with Anonymous

The following interview is with a Legislative Director of a member of the House Committee on Science, who wished to remain anonymous. The House Committee on Science oversees research and development programs for all non-defense federal scientific agencies, including NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

What are some of the biggest accomplishments the science committee has made in the last five years?

The science committee is not one of the more powerful committees on the House side. One of its most serious responsibilities is the oversight of energy programs and other science programs. The Representative has been very active in taking into account the concerns he has in his own district and trying to fit that into the science committee's purview. We have a lot of federal labs in the district, and he has been fighting for money for them. Sometimes that is actual legislation, and sometimes it is just letters to express to the appropriators the importance of the labs.

What are advantages of government money for research as opposed to receiving money from a private industry?

My basic understanding is that scientists searching for basic research funding come to the government; if they are looking for private dollars they are generally conducting more applied research. So for basic research, the government is generally a much better source of funds.

There are people who argue from a libertarian perspective that the government should only fund scientific research if it deals directly with national security or public health. What impact do you think such an attitude would have on research in the United States?

The representative is a big proponent of federal Research and Development funding. It is easy for people to say ‘oh we do not need government for this and that, until you remind them what federal funding and research has resulted in--small things like the internet, for example.

Very often, as you are doing basic research, you do not know where you are going and the results are often not what you intended, which is part of the creative process. So if you tell someone they can only create things having to do with X or Y, I think that is not the right way to approach science, and I think that is how the industry approaches research most of the time because they are driven by profits and their research has to create useful products, not just knowledge.

Currently in the United States, there are scientifically researched cures for impotence and we are working on one for hair loss. However, there are still people around the world dying of curable infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. What do you think is the government's role in funding research for curing these diseases in the third world? How do you balance the desire to keep money and research at home with the desire to help as many people as possible?

I think it is important to remember that most of government funding is basic research and scientists are using those funds to create basic things. The question is really how the information created by the federal money is used by organizations to fight diseases, be it hair loss or tuberculosis in Africa. The decision of how to help people is really a foreign affairs question more than a scientific funding question.

There has been a lot of debate recently about academic earmarking as a method of going around the peer review process in order to receive money from the government. Could you briefly discuss some of the issues faced from the legislative perspective when it comes to earmarking versus the traditional peer review process.

It is really hard because congressmen are in the position of needing to deliver for constituents. On one side you want to do everything right by the funding process, but on the flip side you want to help the people in your district. So when you are approached by the university in your district and they say ‘we need this facility to make us the premiere research university on X or Y,' you are going to work to get money for that facility. At the same time, it can be a real problem. For instance in trying to get funding for world class research facilities, money can be appropriated but then later earmarked for a university in another part of the country. Even though some congressmen are bringing home projects in their district, it is taking away from appropriated money in someone's home district too. There is always a trade off.

When it comes to peer review, the whole issue of who is doing the peer review is very important to discuss. As far as I know, it has not been a big problem in the past, but if someone is nominated for oversight of research on an abortion pill who has a long-standing history of being against abortion, it is important to look at the choices they make. That has been a very pervasive issue. People use the argument ‘What is science? Or what does the science say?' and at the same time are manipulating the science to make it say what they want. At this point, pretty much all you can do to address those problems is just call attention to it as much as possible, because once you do, they seem to be fairly self evident problems. But if this administration does it then the next Democratic administration will do it and it just cycles from there. You have to remember to remain completely objective when it is science you are dealing with, and not play politics.

Submitted by:
Eric Buescher, fall 2003 intern