Vast Majority Of Americans Support Federal Science Funding – But There's A Catch

The magnificent USGS keeping an eye on Kilauea - your American tax dollars at work. Lil DeSmither/USGS

Robin Andrews 03 Jul 2018, 17:31

A few weeks back a Pew Research Center survey presented us with a pleasant surprise: When it comes to NASA’s mission priorities, most rank climate science far ahead of manned missions to the Moon or Mars. It was a reminder that much of the US public is switched on to science, even in the face of the most anti-scientific federal government in American history.

Now, a new Pew survey cements this fact even further. It seems that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor government funding for scientific and medical research, something that broadly aligns with the results of somewhat similar surveys conducted back in 2009 and 2014.

Conducted between April and May of this year, a nationally representative sample of 2,537 members of the American public was asked about federal science funding. Of that number, clear majorities said that government investment in research usually pays off in the long run, including for medical science (80 percent), engineering and technology (80 percent), and basic scientific research (77 percent).

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Of these participants, it’s the Democrat-leaning among them – especially the more liberal members – that think this way. When it comes to basic scientific research, 92 percent of liberal Democrats agree that federal investment ultimately pays off.

Conservative Republicans are the least likely to support the notion that such funding pays off in the long term, but a majority still does: 61 percent of them, for example, are in the plus column when it comes to basic scientific research. The fact that 39 percent of such Republicans say that science funding isn’t worth it, though, is a seriously significant minority.

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Pew note that back in 2001, there was no statistically significant divide when it came to whether funding for scientific research should be increased by the government. Since then, this divide has increased, and a 2017 survey revealed a 27 percentage point gap between Democrats and Republicans when it came to this very notion, with Democrats supporting increased funding.

This latest survey doesn’t ask whether or not funding should be increased or not, but this gives context to the divide between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the worth of science, however that “worth” is interpreted: societally, intellectually, or economically, all of which apply. The bottom line is that Democrat-leaning Americans increasingly see more value in science relative to their Republican-leaning neighbors.

In addition, 57 percent of respondents felt that government investment in research is “essential” for scientific progress, whereas 42 percent said private investment will ensure enough progress is made by itself. The more conservative you are, the more likely you are to think private investment is sufficient.

Although plenty in the know argue that strong government investment in scientific research is vital, it seems that’s not what’s happening in America at the moment. The share (although not necessarily the total amount) of federal investment in science has been falling in the last decade or so, thanks to both stagnating budgets and a huge uptick in investment from philanthropic and corporate groups.

Such private investment is certainly welcome – and is set to be a great help when it comes to things like carbon capture schemes, for example – but it’s encouraging that, in very broad terms, Americans still see the value in federal science investment, and generally see it as a necessity. That’s why, for all its faults, it’s a relief that Congress has been passing some solid science budgets lately, in defiance of the White House’s request for enormous cuts.

Science puts us among the stars, helps us understand volcanoes, and lets us delete dangerous genetic diseases, all while powering the economy. It's for everyone, not just liberals.

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