Decreasing funding for scientific innovation could bear serious global consequences

Criticism of the “Ebola in America” coverage has become almost as monotonous as the coverage itself. This catastrophic atmosphere is as old as the 24-hour news cycle and is often poorly received, but that does little to stop it. The end––brought about by joblessness, national debt or hordes of illegal aliens––has been perpetually nigh. The result is that society–– and by extension lawmakers––has forgotten that there is a future beyond the next crisis. Of course the public does care about the world our children will live in, but it does a poor job of showing it.

America’s infrastructure is crying out for rebuilding, yet there’s little impulse to do anything about it. In the face of endless budget cuts, science and technologic fields are being hamstrung. In a culture of calamity, the will to build and innovate has given way to desperate self-preservation.

The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman described this refusal to invest in the future as both shortsighted and nonsensical. Due to the need for spending in a stagnant economy and historically low interest rates “borrowing to build roads, repair sewers and more seems like a no-brainer. But what has actually happened is the reverse.”

The desire to ensure a reasonable quality of life and the obsession with job creation are not enough to counteract deficit-phobia. The looming specter of national debt supposedly threatens to swallow us whole, yet it has shown no sign of doing so. This is not to say that pretenses at budget austerity will actually lead to long-term debt reduction. We will need that borrowed money for the next war we wage under the delusion that it will keep us safer.

While infrastructure has been ignored, funding for scientific research has been actively shattered. Lawmakers have adopted a callous attitude toward budgeting for research and engineering; one that does not favor building new and expensive machines. Funding for academic research from federal sources was slashed by 5 percent for the 2013 fiscal year—a huge blow, but only a small part of an ongoing trend. For all the exaltation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees as a pragmatic choice, prospects for the tenure track in the natural sciences may soon be as dismal as other academic disciplines.

The situation is not much better in Europe where austerity measures are taken much more seriously. A collection of European scientists penned an open letter in The Guardian titled “They have chosen ignorance” which highlights the incongruity between politics and science.

“[European Union governments] have chosen to ignore that research does not follow political cycles; that long-term, sustainable [research and development] investment is critical because science is a long-distance race,” the scientists said.

The rewards of this long-distance race are not abstract. Many politicians operate under the misconception that foundational research is useless if it does not immediately yield results. As with infrastructure, the benefits extend beyond the obvious long-term societal advances. The letter asserts, “In an ‘innovation State’ like the United States, over half of its economic growth has come from innovation with roots in basic research funded by the federal government.” Unfortunately, this innovative United States described in this letter may be an outdated notion.