Publicly Funded Research: Our Tax Dollars at Work

Many of the natural resources that we value and prize – including clean air and water – are safeguarded by public funded research. Photos: C. Rupprecht (l), R. Broderick (r).

By Lauren Kuehne

Elections can be difficult times for all of us, perhaps especially so for scientists. Even as big issues of economics, environmental policy, and research funding come to the forefront, our opinions are bound by our training and emphasis on objectivity (and that’s on top of the normal tongue-biting everyone has to do around politics). The dilemma, of course, is that scientists know a lot about environmental policies and likewise, about short and long-term benefits of research funding for the environment, public health, and the economy – we are, in many ways, the inside informants.

So how should scientists respond to things like the upcoming automatic budget cuts (‘budget sequestration’) scheduled for January under the Budget Control Act? Unless Congress determines an alternative budget reduction plan, automatic cuts (approximately 7-9%) will take place in January in a majority of federal agencies, including defense [1]. Although the path from federal legislation to funded research varies (making it difficult to clearly figure out the end impact), initial number crunching suggests that public universities could see between 5-10% reductions in federal research grants over the next few years [2].

And even though this year the immediate threat comes from budget sequestration, the issue of taxpayer funded research – and what we get out of it – is ongoing, so I tried to think about what might be a helpful, long-term perspective.  Disclaimer: I am not a public policy analyst or an economist.  But I have worked largely on taxpayer funded research over the past ten years in both in academic institutions and government agencies (such as NOAA), and feel reasonably qualified to offer a perspective on “What are we getting in return?”, and perhaps even bigger, “Why not just let private industry do the research?

Some brief, real examples of how taxpayer funded research gets from universities out into the world seemed the best way to illustrate how research investments trickle through the economy and permeate our lives. As a way of narrowing many possible examples, I’ve chosen three from my own university (University of Washington in Seattle, WA) to demonstrate my top principals of why publicly funded research is important:

Biomimcry – one example of how basic science gets to industry and our everyday lives. Photo: NOAA Ocean Services

1. New technologies rely on basic science investigations. The Summers Lab at UW’s School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, studies the (abstract-sounding) evolutionary biology of fishes, but is one of several in the field of biomimetics, which looks to natural systems to provide innovative engineering solutions. Just one example of their recent work examined how mimicking properties of cartilage skeletons (e.g., sharks) may help reduce fatigue and tearing under excessive bending loads [3].

Many companies have roots in academic (largely publicly funded) research [5]. Image Credit: The Science Coalition

2. Industrial and academic partnerships.

If you are like me, you may have gotten tired of hearing your dentist suggest getting a Sonicare toothbrush. Owned by the corporation Phillips since 2000, Sonicare started as a partnership between entrepreneur David Guiliani and UW professors Roy Martin and David Engel, who worked together to develop use of a “piezoelectric multimorph transducer” to create a more effective toothbrush. Sonicare was officially introduced for use in 1992, after five years of testing and prototypes at UW.

3. Watching out for natural resources, underdogs, and public benefit

Chambered nautilus: Being loved to death? Publicly funded research guards against losses in environmental resources. Photo credit: Michael Bentley

The chambered nautilus, a “living fossil” is being loved to death, and populations decimated for the ornamental trade. Dr. Peter Ward’s (UW, Dept. of Biology) research attracted media and popular attention, and his research may help qualify the nautilus for an international protective status, hopefully avoiding extinction of the ancient cephalopods.

In my own research areas (freshwater, non-native species & climate change) this last principal is key in that federally funded research fulfills a particular niche that is for public benefit. The invasive species we study have the potential for enormous ecological and economic impacts on many levels of society – individuals, state and federal government, and entire industries – but would be very difficult (if not impossible) to fund the research through private industry. The same argument holds for many shared resources, like air and water quality, as well as health and sustainability of the wildlife and natural resources we prize and rely on.

It’s also important to remember that taxpayer funded research comes with the “bonus” of increasing the scientific knowledge and skills of graduate and undergraduate researchers, who go on to use their education and skills not only in resource management and education, but technology development and industry (e.g. to start companies like ‘Google’[5]). Funding research elevates the innovative potential of the country as a whole.

So my best answer to “How do we advocate for publicly funded research?” is: emphasize the outcomes of a relatively strong history of public investment in scientific research (which we are probably inclined to take for granted). I think the benefits to our economy, health, environment, and innovative potential can be recognized and acknowledged regardless of which boxes one checks off on the ballot.

Author’s note: You can find more information on my background and research on my wordpress site.  I would also like to thank Dr. Peter Ward and Dr. Adam Summers for agreeing to have their work discussed in the article.


1. Khimm, Suzy. “The sequester, explained”, The Washington Post. 9/14/12

2. Schweppe, Sarah. “UW faces potential cut to federal research funding”, The UW Daily. 8/14/12.

3. Xiaoxi, L., M. N. Dean, A. P. Summers, and J. C. Earthman (2010) Composite Model of the Shark’s Skeleton in Bending:  a novel architecture for biomimetic design of functional compression bias. Materials Science and Engineering C 1077-1086. [Article]

4. Hooper, Rowan. “Ideas Stolen Right From Nature”, Wired Magazine. 11/9/04.

5. The Science Coalition, How federally funded university research creates innovation, new companies and jobs. April 2010.

5 thoughts on “Publicly Funded Research: Our Tax Dollars at Work

  1. Pingback: Publicly funded research: an exploration of our tax dollars at work – Early Career Ecologists « CoEnv Currents

  2. Pingback: Early Career Ecologist Profile: Meet Nate Hough-Snee | Early Career Ecologists

    • These are good points to bring up (I am also a proud product of public school systems!), and there is no question that recessions (and economics generally) are hugely intertwined with progress in science and technology not to mention conservation ethics – a bad economy tends to set all of these things back. BUT, there are also opportunities for scientists to be leaders during tough economic times, maybe even more so. The conservation ethics that we are always preaching (turn off the lights, drive less etc) really resonate right now because people and businesses need to reduce their costs. The need for new technologies that depend on basic science and improve efficiency in all arenas has become more urgent. There are even opportunities to further new trends in science – like citizen science or crowdsourced data – which may offer less expensive ways to gather some data and involve more people in learning about science and actually participating in research. So while I don’t to seem like a Pollyanna, I think we have to keep looking for opportunities inside of the economic hand we are dealt. But keep talking to the dealer too:)

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