The future of American science is in question

It sounds incredible that we are even asking that question here in the 21st century, in a country that is one of the world leaders in research in science and technology, but Trump has made it scarily relevant. His pick for the office of management and budget is a guy who thinks the funding of science might belong on the chopping block.

President-elect Donald Trump recently picked Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina to head the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Like many of Trump’s other Cabinet nominees, Mulvaney seems to have a disturbingly low opinion of science.

In a stunning September 9 Facebook post (that’s since been deleted but is still cached), Mulvaney asked, … what might be the best question: do we really need government funded research at all.

That was in the context of a discussion about funding programs to deal with the Zika virus. What Mulvaney argued was nonsensical and self-defeating: there had been studies that found the etiology of Zika-induced birth defects to be complex and variable (there have since been studies that showed a stronger and more consistent association), so he’s arguing that maybe we don’t need more scientific studies at all? This is a close-your-eyes-and-maybe-it-will-all-go-away approach. We don’t run away from complexity. We don’t expect that interactions in biology will be simple and clear and 100% reproducible.

This is also a matter of public health, rather than profit. We also don’t expect that the biomedical industry will, out of the kindness of their hearts, fund research on a low-frequency but tragically serious disease, nor are pharmaceutical companies, for instance, usually much concerned with public health measures to control disease vectors. This is exactly the kind of research that needs government funding — unprofitable, requiring multi-disciplinary approaches, with a need to work out basic mechanisms.

And that’s what compels Mulvaney to question the utility of government-funded research. I wonder what he thinks of Drosophila and zebrafish work?


  1. says

    Oh well, I probably would have retired in a few years anyway. Still, it will be sad to see all the schools of public health go out of business.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Let me try a Libertarian argument to answer Mulvaney (it might be his language):
    [let me just call it that though it aint]
    Government research is necessary as a competitor to private research. All progress comes from competition, so let government be the competition and the private sector will excel. Expecting private research to provide correct answers is dependent on altruism, the ethics downfall of all idealistic thinking. So fund government research to ethically motivate the private sector.
    *spit* *rinse* *spit*.

  3. Johnny Vector says


    He probably thinks Drosophila is a Muslim name.

    And he knows al-gebra is one.

    Scratch that, that would require him knowing some history.

  4. Rich Woods says

    I wonder what he thinks of Drosophila and zebrafish work?

    That neither have done a hard day’s work in their lives and don’t contribute to GDP and just sponge off the government teat.

  5. wzrd1 says

    Ah, but you’re not seeing the big picture.
    Parts of Florida now have endemic spread of Zika virus. Local spread of Zika virus has now also been documented in one county in Texas.
    Attacks upon the educational systems of our nation.

    Obviously, microcephaly is a GOP goal, all to make better Republicans.
    If microcephaly cannot be nationally achieved, the destruction of the educational systems, which wouldn’t have been needed in a national microcephalic environment anyway, is necessary.

  6. Sastra says

    This is probably partially fueled by a mentality which glamorizes the Ol’ West, that pristine land filled with those pioneer spirits who took handouts from nobody. Grow your own wheat, butcher your own cattle, and raise your own kids up with no better book larnin’ than the Holy Bible. If we need science, by gawd we’ll grow it ourselves, we will — spin it out and stitch it up till it’s nothin’ fancy, but it’ll get the job done, you bet!

    Science = doing your own research, having your own experiences, and making up your own mind in the humble fear of a righteous God. “Experts” only get in the way of that.

  7. jaybee says

    Johnny Vector @4 — yeah, computer science is in danger too, because of algorithm. Not the Arabic origin of the word, but because “Al Gore” is right in the fucking word. That guy claims he invented it!

  8. handsomemrtoad says

    Rush Limbaugh famously derided all the work on c. elegans, saying “it’s a worm! Who cares about a worm?” In fact, studying c. elegans is how we know most of what we know about the genetics of neurodevelopment. It was the first organism to have its entire nervous system mapped, every neuron and every synapse. Many of the genes involved in its neurodeveolpment have analogous genes in higher animals, including us.