Thursday, October 8, 2015

I'm back! And Federal funding of science

To be honest, I haven't really gone anywhere, but I haven't posted on this blog in ages.  Now, after a 40 month hiatus, I decided I would like a public forum to talk about some things.  Without further ado, something that is on my mind.

Today I received an e-mail from FASEB (Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology) asking me to send e-mails to my senators and representative, urging them to approve the FY2016 budget that includes a $2 billion increase in National Institutes of Health funding and a $50 million increase for the National Science Foundation.  So I did, and if you are a scientist or just a concerned citizen that wants to see science research supported in the US, please do so as well!

Now, I admit a tiny part of me is doing this because, well, I am a researcher myself, and more funding benefits me directly, if only in a very small way.  But mostly I care about education.  See, when the Federal government gives a grant to a researcher at a university, a large fraction of that money goes to supporting graduate (and sometimes undergraduate) students.  It pays tuition, offers a small stipend for doctoral students, and covers material costs for students of all levels to conduct research.

Why is this important, and why do I feel the need to mention it?  I can't count the number of times people have asked me why it is worth tax dollars to study zebrafish (which by the way are awesome model organisms for a lot of biological processes relevant to humans), or what is the point behind some of the (seemingly) more esoteric research conducted at universities.  What I tell them, and what I want to say here, is that aside from all the potential practical applications that could eventually derive from research, a big part of research at a university involves training a technically literate workforce and scientifically aware citizens.  I have had undergraduates, high school students, master's students, and doctoral students all work in my lab.  Some labs have primary / secondary school teachers and just interested citizens doing research in the lab.  In all cases, they learn stuff. And they take what they've learned and use it to contribute in myriad ways long after they've left the lab, and in a wide variety of settings -- not just research labs and academia (in fact, those are only a small minority).  From my own experience as a student, I learned more doing research -- knowledge, skills, ways of thinking and solving problems -- than I ever learned in classrooms.

So when the Federal government gives more money to the NIH and NSF, they're not just funding science -- they're helping prepare people for professional and public pursuits of all kinds.

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