April 11, 2011

Budget Battles and the Future of Ecological Research

The rhetorical and legislative battles waged in Washington, DC in recent weeks over the federal budget suggest that some major changes in science funding may be underway. It is my belief that those possible changes could have real implications for the science of ecology. For years, politicians of all persuasions have spoken of the need for federal funding of science, and this largess has resulted in major advances in many fields. However, with the ballooning federal deficit there has rightfully been increased scrutiny of federal spending on science. Clearly, we cannot keep spending borrowed money, and something has to give. In response to potential budget cuts, science advocates have attempted to highlight the value of federally-funded science in such easily understandable terms as "promoting competitiveness" and "assuring America's leading role in world affairs". Some of these arguments, while well-intentioned, marginalize entire scientific endeavors. 

For example, Representative Sherwood Boehlert (Republican - NY), who served on the House science committee and retired in 2007, argued, "One of the most important things for scientists to do is to change the vocabulary. No longer should we be talking about investing in science....because it's important for science. We should make this a national security issue. When a lot of the conversation is about the next Congress cutting or freezing all non–national security spending, we ought to take [science] funding and put it under the national security umbrella" (Science, November 2010). I understand the intent behind this statement, but what of all of the scientific endeavors that don't fit neatly under the "national security umbrella". Do scientific disciplines such as ecology no longer have a place in a world where federal budget deficits suggest to some an increased emphasis on those disciplines that have direct relevance to society? 

Maybe not, but in my view such a world would be a greatly diminished one. Numerous countries spend far more than the U.S. on the natural sciences, realizing perhaps that healthy societies and economies depend in part on healthy ecosystems. For example, the Swedish government funds the Swedish Taxonomy Initiative that aims to create a complete inventory of all multicellular species present within the country. The $10 million annual budget of this initiative isn't trivial, but the effort has already identified many species new to science, and when completed will vastly increase knowledge of Swedish biodiversity, help to identify declining species, and provide novel insights into how ecosystems function. Under Representative Boehlert's suggested focus on science as a national security issue, similar biodiversity research being conducted in the U.S. would be marginalized. 

I believe that studying biodiversity for its own sake and for the services that such biodiversity and the supporting ecosystems provide to human societies is important. But in the budgets of the future, I suspect that the value of scientific research will be increasingly viewed through a lens that discriminates between important and unimportant science on the basis of its direct and immediate relevance to society. With such a view, the only ecological research that will flourish will be that focused on important commodities (e.g., biofuel production to reduce our dependence on foreign oil) and on imminent biological threats to humanity (e.g., emerging diseases). All else will be relegated to the sidelines as unaffordable luxuries in a time of scarcity. 

But is spending money on improving our understanding of those creatures with whom we share this planet really a luxury? Or do we ignore biodiversity at our own peril? Our society will answer those questions in the coming years, and given what I suspect the outcome will be, I'm thankful that my own research can be accomplished with only a backpack, a notebook, and good pair of hiking boots.

Back to The Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Site.

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