The Fight for Research Funding Gets More Complex

The following is an adapted excerpt from the report “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a look at the social, political, and economic forces affecting researchers in 2017.

As long as there have been scientists, there have been scientists in need of research funding. The online archives of ACS journals contain references to the need for funding going back 90 years, but of course the problem is even older than that. Historically, researchers were limited to getting funds from their personal contacts and wealthy patrons. Alexander Graham Bell’s work on the telephone was financed in part by money from the father of one of his students. But beginning in Germany in the 19th century, government-funded universities began supporting research directly. After World War II, the U.S. created a number of research-focused offices, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Public funding joined universities and corporations as one of the major drivers of research. So why list the search for funding as one of the leading trends in science today?

First, money is an enduring concern for scientists everywhere. Even if every other item on this list becomes irrelevant, scientists will still need to find a means of supporting their work. As Cynthia Burrows, Editor-in-Chief of Accounts of Chemical Research reminds us, “Money makes the world go round.” Even if in the face of a public health crisis, such as recent outbreaks of Zika virus, scientists need to find a way to pay for their research. Sometimes, that funding can still be held up by issues that have nothing to do with science, such as political concerns.

Second, the way funding is being apportioned to researchers today is changing. As new fields gain prominence, it can be harder for established disciplines to find the same level of backing they had in the past. Scientists aren’t immune to the human inclination to chase trends. Even if they were, people who aren’t scientists are involved in making funding decisions. Researchers may feel pressure to focus their work on fields that are easier to fund, rather than chasing after what they know to be more important questions, especially as state-funded research grants become scarcer. Even researchers in prominent fields may feel the need to transition to a career outside the lab if they can’t secure funding.

Scientists engaged in basic research face some of the most difficult challenges in securing funding. It’s easier for organizations, both public and private, to say yes to research aimed at fixing a specific problem. Public funding for basic research is meant to alleviate this concern, but politicians may look to score points with their constituents by mocking research they see as frivolous. “With many governments feeling they need to justify spending on education and research, the shift in focus to applied science over fundamental science the emphasis away from fundamental science, to more applied science in many countries is a major concern for the advancement of knowledge,” says ACS Sensors Editor-in-Chief Justin Gooding.

But the news isn’t entirely bad. In the U.S., 2016 brought an increase to federal funding for research through the National Institutes of Health, The Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and The National Science Foundation, following years of stagnation. At the same time, legislators made the federal research and development tax credit permanent, following more than 30 years of temporary extensions.
This move may give private organizations the additional financial security they need to make long-term research commitments.

In China, government research funding increased by 23% in the decade leading up to 2014. Government funding has traditionally gone to applied science projects, often with grand goals attached such as nuclear power and space exploration. Funding for basic research has increased in recent years, however, and researchers are increasingly receiving more control over how their funding is spent.

At the same time, other sources of funding are appearing. Patient advocacy groups can help fund research into rare diseases. Crowd-funding sites can help startups raise capital or even be used to fund research directly. These options offer welcome additional funding sources for researchers, but they also present a dilemma. These kinds of options work best for research into applied topics that are either easily understood or that have deep appeal for a particular group, such as patients with a particular disease. Democratic funding may not be a tide that lifts all boats.

More troubling is the possibility that funding shortages may dissuade bright, capable individuals from pursuing careers in research. “Being a professor is fun and rewarding. However, funding trends (and perhaps more than funding trends, a perception of decreased funding) are discouraging many qualified individuals from pursuing this career path,” says Analytical Chemistry Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Sweedler.

At the same time, science is becoming an ever-more international pursuit. More researchers are looking to international businesses or research consortia to fund their work. This encourages collaboration and cross-pollination. It also means that skilled researchers don’t have to make do with mediocre local funding sources. As a consequence, nations that don’t prioritize public funding for research place themselves at risk of losing some of their brightest minds.

The following is an excerpt from the report “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a look at the social, political, and economic forces affecting researchers in 2017.

If you have comments or questions for the author of this post, please e-mail: Axial@acs.org.