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Promoting the Societal Impact of Science Or: How Budget Cuts May Be Beneficial


It seems fitting for an early post of our Science & Society blog to discuss the relationship between the two elements of our name. A recent Nature commentary by Daniel Sarewitz, entitled “Science’s rightful place is in service of society,” provides a framework for such discussion and highlights important issues concerning the allocation of public funds for scientific research.

It’s no secret that Washington gridlock is taking a toll on publically funded science. On March 1, mandatory federal sequestration cut the NIH budget by 5.5% (or $1.55 billion), resulting in across-the-board cuts to all NIH programs, activities, centers, and institutes. 640 fewer research project grants will be issued in 2013 compared to those issued in 2012. With decreased funding available for public scientific research, we need to reassess how we allocate existing funds to ensure maximal feasible social benefits.

As Sarewitz writes, “When there is no new money to throw at science, the only way to improve its social value is to tighten how the old money is spent.” When funding gets scarce, we have to prioritize funding to best promote the interests of society.

There is often heated discussion in the policy arena about the importance of basic scientific research but these arguments distract from the more fundamental challenge: basic research is essential to developing future technological application. The more important question is how we streamline the pipeline from basic scientific research to product development.

The Obama administration has tried to address these concerns by decreasing funding for public science while promoting research effectiveness. The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which was launched in December, is designed to forge partnerships between “government, academia, philanthropy, patient advocates, and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to overcome translational roadblocks and offer solutions to detect, treat, and prevent disease.” Similarly, the Department of Energy’s Energy Innovation Hubs integrate energy research at universities, private industries, non-profits, and government laboratories. These initiatives promote transparency in the research process, and try to ensure that publically funded research addresses the needs of society efficiently and thoroughly.

However, these efforts shouldn’t be limited to times when funding is tight. Research shows that inefficiencies in the translational pipeline occur all the time, independent of budgetary limitations. As Sarewitz notes, the doubling of the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003 “did not reduce the stunningly high failure rates and costs of drug development.” Advocacy for increasing research funding should be coupled with the promotion of mechanisms for establishing a streamlined technological development process that promotes transparency between researchers, industries, and public representatives. It is disappointing, if not frustrating, that dramatic funding cuts were necessary to spur such collaborations. But the scarcity of science funds may, ironically, revitalize the state of scientific research in the United States. Future collaborative efforts between society and science can bolster and expedite the scientific process, bringing together basic research, application development, technological development, and deployment. Working together, we can make sure that society benefits from the best of science’s potential.