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. anat says

    A sign at work says ‘if we knew all the answers we’d call it ‘search’ not ‘research”. The whole point of doing research is to understand things we currently don’t know, to the extent that we don’t even know if we are looking in the right direction. Which means we have no idea if what we are doing will result in useful answers, let alone profitable ones. Therefore we can’t rely on short-term profit as motivation to fund research.

  2. Bruce says

    Defense studies show that the military threats that the US faces are complex and variable. Thus, by the Trump staff logic, we should dismantle the Department of Defense. It makes more sense.

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