Today I am thankful for my friends and family and being born into a middle class family in a first world country and all of that normal Thanksgiving stuff. But there is something else that I am thankful for that I want to call attention to. I am thankful for the public funding of science.
Science is not a set of facts or theories. Science is a way of doing things, a way of approaching the world around you and trying to make sense of it. It is a thing that humans do. Some fields of science might do things a little bit differently than other fields, but at the end of the day, they are all using agreed upon methods to systematically investigate phenomena that occur in the world. And then they share their results with other scientists in an open and responsive way and together, scientists continually critique and improve upon our collective understanding of the world.
Science is not always profitable. Once in a while, some basic research leads to important developments that can be applied to products that people might want to buy. But that is not always the case and requiring that kind of possibility for all science is not a good idea. We don’t usually know ahead of time which lines of inquiry are going to be fruitful and which ones won’t. That’s not how science works.
So, having ways of funding science that are not tied to ways of making money is really important for science. In the U.S. we have the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense that make up the bulk of the public funding of science. All taxpayers contribute to science. These departments decide, based on scientific (and occasionally practical) priorities using panels of peer review, which proposals are worthy of public money. And then people can do science.
I have been a beneficiary of this public support of science for most of my professional career, starting early in graduate school. This money supports not just senior scientists and equipment, but also students training to be scientists. It is usually essential that this support is provided for students, or this line of work – which requires up to a decade of training in many cases – would not be feasible for the vast majority of students.
Science is a bit unpredictable sometimes, which is partly why it’s so exciting. New discoveries could be right around the corner and we don’t know where those discoveries will lead. But public funding of science is essential to our existence as a modern society and continually improving the lives of the people on this planet. So, thank you for your continued public support of science.