Science Directions

Much of what we do as scientists requires financial support. Our universities, colleges and research institutes underwrite a significant portion of those costs. Still, most of the money for basic science comes from outside sources. Among those outside sources, the federal government surely ranks as our No. 1 patron.

Federal obligation

Federal support for scientific research, including behavioral science, assumed its present-day form just after World War II. The war effort itself generated significant support for science, and leaders ever since have recognized the value of a federal investment in basic research. The current boom in information technology is the direct result of grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the successful treatment of numerous diseases is possible because of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and our nation's military strength is due in large part to Department of Defense support of basic science in nonmilitary laboratories. It is fair to say that the federal government has developed an obligation to support science, as the nation's health, defense and economic growth increasingly depends on the advancements brought by science.

Having worked in a federal agency (NSF), I saw firsthand the terrific value of the government's investment in science. Today's scientific marvels--nanotechnology, genome mapping, cognitive neuroscience--will surely produce better products and health care for tomorrow. I also learned to appreciate how federal agencies prioritize their investments. Clearly, one priority is to invest in excellent science. Yet scientific merit is only one part of the funding equation. Each federal agency also articulates its goals and priorities for funding, which derive from legislative oversight, administration policies, advisory groups of scientists, community leaders and others whom taxpayers trust to make wise investments.

No entitlement

If you happen to be a scientist whose work falls squarely within the goals and priorities of a funding agency, you are a fortunate scientist indeed. Despite the alarming news of shrinking federal support for science, there is still a lot of money to go around if your research involves the kind of science that federal agencies want to fund.

Not all of us are so fortunate. NSF wants to support multidisciplinary, technology-focused research. NIH wants to support disease-focused research, with an emphasis on translating basic science into useful clinical practice. What if you don't do the kind of research that these agencies want to fund?

The answer is that you may be out of luck. Scientists are not entitled to a federal investment merely because their science is of the highest quality. We are really talking about taxpayers' money here, and taxpayers have a right to demand that their money be invested in solving problems that they want to see solved. Scientists also have a responsibility to educate policy-makers, the public and funding agencies on the importance and relevance of their research.

Often, scientists will suggest that taxpayers don't really understand the nature of science, that they can't be trusted to make decisions about scientific priorities and that only the scientific establishment can do that. I think this is arrogant. As scientists, we are not entitled to federal support merely because we demand it. Nor are we entitled to carte blanche when it comes to the spending of taxpayers' money on the premise that we know best. This attitude cannot be sustained, especially in the funding climate of the early 21st century.

Reactive to proactive

All of this is a long preamble to a comment concerning recent changes in the funding priorities of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)--a federal agency on which many of us have depended for many years. A general panic is developing, especially among social psychologists, because the institute's recent reorganization appears to be shifting funding away from basic research and into translational research.

Rather than reacting defensively to funding changes, science and society will be better served by responding proactively. We should try to understand the reasoning behind the shift. If we don't agree with it, then we need to explain why. Our response must be to educate.

I believe that basic research is the only way that NIMH can deliver on its legislative mandate, which is to further the treatment and prevention of mental illness and to support research on the psychological, social and legal factors that influence behavior. Let's do NIMH a favor and show them the way.