Federal research investment and its benefits for society

“A water impoundment at a drill pad in the Fayetteville Shale gas play of Arkansas.” - Photo Credit: USGS

In seeking to improve fiscal restraint through a federal budget that has burgeoned over the past decade (largely due to expansion of mandatory spending coupled with decreased revenue intake), lawmakers have been eyeing numerous areas of discretionary spending, including scientific research due to the fact that cutting spending in these areas is more politically feasible than addressing the growth of entitlement programs or revenue-raising tax reform.

When reviewing scientific research investments, some lawmakers have set their sights on research with no immediately apparent applied benefit as well as on research they perceive as politically-motivated. Regarding the latter, much criticism among House Republicans has been leveled at government efforts to fund research on environmental issues like climate change or hydraulic fracturing, partially out of concern that these efforts are  at the expense of industry and economic development.

During a recent meeting of the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coaltion with a Member of Congress in a district where hydraulic fracturing (also called “fracking”) is practiced, the Congressman asked the scientists with whom he was meeting why additional research is necessary given that existing information suggests that the practice is safe. In the most recent edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, Carlos Silva (ESA File Photo)Carlos Silva discusses his response to this question. Carlos suggested continued research into fracking could benefit the industry in the long-term by uncovering new methods that ultimately improve efficiency or validate the safety of the practice and expand acceptance of its commercial use. Carlos noted that it was National Science Foundation research in geology that contributed to the technology. In the podcast, he also discussed past meetings he’s had with the Maryland delegation and the bipartisan support for research to understand algal blooms and to remedy water quality issues in the Chesapeake Bay, which provides a multitude of local commercial and economic benefits to surrounding communities in the region.

While researchers seem to agree that the process of hydraulic fracturing itself does not cause earthquakes, evidence suggests a connection to the wastewater disposal process In addition, communities are concerned about possible contamination of their drinking water.  Research on this evolving energy extraction process can lead to better strategies and show if some concerns are unwarranted.

Scientific research improves our knowledge with regard to how to better cope with changes to the environment in a more cost-effective way. One of the central themes of this year’s Climate Leadership Conference outlined how coping with the various aspects of climate change can save businesses billions of dollars in insurance through investing in extreme weather-resistant infrastructure and energy-saving initiatives. In another example, research into understanding how floodplains work, provides us with knowledge on how the natural world can function to mitigate severe floods while limiting the degree in which we need to provide funding for added infrastructure.

For as long as American innovation has existed, scientific research has proven to be an ally in the growth and expansion of industry, not a deterrent. Curtailing our ability to advance our understanding of the natural world hurts economic growth more than it helps it in the long-term. This is something lawmakers should keep in mind when proposing further cuts that deter our capability to improve environmental health and safety, not to mention hamper our overall global competitiveness and technological advancement.

Photo Credit: USGS

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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