The answer, says the President's science czar John Holdren: Extremely important. Scientific research, even weird science, gives the U.S. a competitive edge globally.
Slate ran an article earlier this week that claims the political right is winning the case against public social science research, however. A couple weeks ago, Florida GOP Congressman Rep. Bill Posey asked Holdren to justify the National Science Foundation's proposed $7.6 billion budget. Posey mockingly named off various research studies.
"‘Picturing Animals in National Geographic for the years 1988 to 2008’ costing $227,000,” said Posey, according to Slate. “‘Kinship, Women's Labor and China's Economic Performance in the 17th to 21st Centuries’ costing $267,000. ‘Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China's Dairy Industry.’ … I mean, it's just hard to conceive how those are important to our national security or our national interest.”
Lambasting government-led social science is a growing trend as we foray into post-sequester financial austerity, the article notes.
"Attacking government-funded social science is popular, especially on the right," the story reads. "Last week, Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul introduced a bill that would change the American Community Survey, sent annually to a random selection of 3.2 million people, from mandatory to optional. If Americans didn’t want to fill it out, even if that would render it mostly useless as data, the private sector would do just fine."
But is the private sector truly ready to pick up the slack if federal funding gets cut off? Seventeen years ago, a Republican-championed gun bill prevented the Centers for Disease Control from studying guns as a public health issue. Today, there's a proposal to privately fund that type of research, but it's not nearly close to raising its targeted $25,000.
Government agencies and the rest of us, the taxpaying public, could do a lot with information dug up from things like community surveys and like research. It could guide elected leaders as they shape policy that affects our daily life. It gives the nation better insight into its own populace, the ones who fund this research in the first place.
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