July 9, 2009

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Section 3: Funding Scientific Research

There is broad agreement among scientists that a lack of funding currently represents the biggest impediment to conducting high-quality scientific research. Nearly half (46%) cite a lack of funding for basic research as a very serious impediment to high-quality research, while another 41% say it is a serious impediment.

Scientists who primarily address basic knowledge questions are more likely than applied researchers to describe a lack of funding as a very serious obstacle to scientific research (52% vs. 41%). Still, overwhelming majorities in both groups of scientists (89% basic research, 84% applied research) see a lack of funding as at least a serious impediment.

A majority of scientists (56%) say that visa and immigration problems facing foreign scientists or students who want to work or study in the United States present either a very serious (17%) or serious (39%) obstacle to high-quality scientific research in this country. This view is particularly widespread among scientists who are not U.S. citizens: 78% of non-citizens see visa problems as a serious impediment to research, with 43% saying it is a very serious obstacle. By comparison, a smaller majority of U.S. citizens (54%) say visa problems for foreign scientists and students are a serious impediment to high-quality research, with just 14% calling it very serious.

Far fewer scientists see other factors as presenting serious obstacles to high-quality research. Just 27% say that regulations on the use of animals in research are very serious (6%) or serious (21%) impediments to research; more than half (59%) say these regulations are not serious impediments. Even among researchers who have worked on projects involving animal subjects in the past five years – roughly a third of the scientists interviewed – only about three-in-ten (31%) see restrictions on animal research as a serious impediment.

Just 21% of scientists say that regulations to prevent U.S. technology from being misused overseas are a serious impediment to high-quality research. Physicists and astronomers are far more likely than those in other disciplines to see these regulations as a serious barrier to research (40%).

About one-in-five scientists (19%) say the way that institutional review boards implement rules on human subjects is a serious impediment to high-quality research. Scientists who have worked on a research project with human subjects in the past five years are about twice as likely as those who have not worked with human subjects (31% vs. 16%) to see this as a serious impediment.

Funders’ Priorities

In general, scientists say that most of the funders of scientific research in their field emphasize low-risk, low-reward projects over high-risk projects that have the potential for scientific breakthroughs.

About six-in-ten (59%) say that when it comes to funding for research in their scientific specialty, most funders place greater emphasis on “projects expected to make incremental scientific progress that have lower risk of failure.” Just 5% say research funders emphasize “projects with the potential for scientific breakthroughs, but with higher risk of failure,” while 28% say funders emphasize both types of projects about equally.

Comparable shares of scientists working in applied (62%) and basic (60%) research say that most research funders in their fields emphasize lower risk projects expected to make incremental progress. Across scientific disciplines, those working in the biological and medical sciences are more likely than others to say that most funders stress low-risk projects.

Most Decry Funding Chase

About three-quarters of the scientists surveyed (76%) say that the incentive to do research where funding is readily available has too much influence on the direction of research in their specialty. Roughly two-thirds (66%) also say a focus on projects that will yield results quickly has too much influence on the direction of research. These views are widely shared across scientific disciplines. Fewer scientists (40%) see an emphasis on developing marketable products as having too much influence on research in their field.

Half of scientists (50%) say that political groups or officials have too much influence on the direction of research in their specialty, while 47% disagree. Scientists who primarily address applied research questions (55%) are more likely than those involved in basic research (45%) to say that political groups or officials have too much influence. In addition, more scientists working in government (62%) and industry (56%) say political groups or officials have too much influence than do those in non-profits (45%) or academia (45%).

The Color of Money

Many scientists say money also has another impact on their profession – by inducing colleagues to pursue marketable research that has only marginal benefits for science. Nearly half of the scientists interviewed (47%) say that the possibility of making a lot of money leads many in their specialty to pursue “projects that yield marketable products but do not advance science very much.”

Roughly two-thirds (68%) of scientists working in industry say that possible financial rewards lead some in their specialty to pursue projects that yield marketable products, but do little to advance science. By comparison, only about four-in-ten of those working in government (43%), academia (43%) or for non-profits (42%) say this.

Yet scientists working in industry also see a potential benefit from those in their field reaping a possible financial gain: 42% say that the prospect of making a lot of money leads researchers in their field to pursue creative research ideas, which is substantially greater than the percentages of those working in government or other sectors expressing this view.

For the most part, scientists – those in industry and elsewhere – do not see the prospect of personal financial gain leading colleagues to cut corners on research quality or to violate ethical standards. Overall, about a quarter (26%) says the possibility of making a lot of money leads colleagues to cut corners in research while 11% say it has led scientists in their specialty to pursue research that violates ethical standards.

Government Dominates Research Funding

The federal government – more specifically, two government agencies – plays a dominant role in funding research, according to scientists. When asked to name the most important sources of funding within their scientific specialty, fully 84% list one or more government agencies.

Overwhelming percentages of scientists working in basic (91%) and applied research (81%) cite federal government sources as among the most important in their specialty, as do more than eight-in-ten across all scientific disciplines.

Nearly half of scientists (49%) specify the National Institutes of Health (NIH) among the most important sources funding their research area; and roughly the same number (47%) cite the National Science Foundation (NSF). The shares mentioning each of these government agencies nearly equals the proportion (50%) citing any kind of non-government funding source as most important.

As might be expected, NIH is particularly important in funding biological and medical sciences; nearly two-thirds of the scientists in that field (65%) name NIH as among the most important funding sources in their specialty. A majority of chemists (59%) also name NIH as among the most important funders in their discipline.

The NSF is cited most frequently by geoscientists (70%) and physicists and astronomers (62%) and by a majority of chemists (56%). The Department of Energy, mentioned by 13% of scientists overall, is a particularly important funding source in physics and astronomy (45%). In addition, a third of physicists and astronomers (33%) cite the Department of Defense among the most important funding sources in their field, far more than do scientists working in other specialties.

Half of all scientists (50%) cite one or more non-government funding source – including foundations, non-profits and industry – as among the most important for their specialty. Scientists working in applied research (57%) are more likely than those working in basic research (46%) to mention a non-government funding source as most important. Among scientific specialties, a majority of those working in biological and medical sciences (55%) cites non-government sources as among the most important, as do 53% of chemists. Far fewer of those working in geosciences (35%) and in physics and astronomy (28%) point to non-government funding sources as most important.

Among non-government funding sources, foundations and non-profits are mentioned by more scientists than industry and business sources (30% vs. 20%). This is particularly true for those working in biological and medical sciences, who are twice as likely to name non-profit (39%) as business (19%) sources among the most important to their field. By contrast, those working in physics and astronomy are more likely to cite industry (16%) than non-profit (7%) sources.

Even among scientists who themselves work for business or industry employers, the government is seen as a significant source of funding. Nearly two-thirds (64%) list one or more government sources as among the most important to their field of scientific specialty, with 26% explicitly mentioning NIH and 22% mentioning NSF. Roughly half (52%) list industry sources as most important within their field.

Public’s View: Government Funding Needed

For its part, the general public endorses the idea that government outlays for research are necessary for scientific progress. Six-in-ten (60%) say “government investment in research is essential for scientific progress”; only about half as many (29%) say “private investment will ensure that enough scientific progress is made even without government investment.”

As is often the case with opinions about the role of government, there is a substantial partisan divide in views of government investment in scientific research. Fewer than half of conservative Republicans (44%) say that government investment in research is essential for scientific progress; 48% of conservative Republicans say private investment will ensure that scientific progress is made. By comparison, 56% of moderate and liberal Republicans, 59% of independents and a much larger majority of Democrats (71%) say that government investment in research is essential.

Regardless of whether they see government investment as essential to scientific progress, large majorities say that government investments in science do pay off. Nearly three-quarters of the public (73%) say that government investments in basic scientific research pay off in the long run, while a similar percentage (74%) holds that investments in engineering and technology pay off in the long run.

Opinions about these investments vary little across political and demographic groups. Eight-in-ten Democrats (80%) say that government investments in basic science research pay off in the long run, as do 72% of independents and 68% of Republicans. Views about whether government engineering and technological investments pay off largely mirror those about basic science investments.

Stable Support for Science Spending

Consistent with views about the role of government investment in science, most Americans would not cut funding for scientific research if given the opportunity to shape the federal budget. Overall, about four-in-ten (39%) say they would increase spending on scientific research if they were making up the federal budget. This is far less than the proportions in favor of increased federal spending for
education (67%), veterans’ benefits and services (63%), health care (61%) and Medicare (53%).

However, the public’s support for increased spending has declined for many policy areas, while opinions about government spending on scientific research have changed little since 2001.

Currently, 39% say they would increase spending on scientific research; about the same share (40%) say they would keep spending the same; 14% say they would decrease the budget for scientific research. In April 2001, 41% said they would increase spending, 46% favored keeping spending the same, while 10% favored less spending for scientific research.

Even as overall public views have remained fairly stable, partisan differences over spending on scientific research have widened considerably. This mirrors a wider partisan gap in views about federal spending in other areas as well.

In April 2001, there was little difference in partisan opinions about spending on science. Roughly four-in-ten independents (43%), Democrats (38%) and Republicans (37%) favored increased spending. Today, about half (51%) of Democrats favor increasing spending on science, up 13 points from 2001; among Republicans, just 25% support increasing the budget for scientific research, down 12 points over the same period. Opinion among independents has changed little (40% favor increased spending today, 43 % in 2001).