Sunday, February 8, 2009

Funding Science - From Whence the Money Comes?

Science is expensive. And basic science in particular has no immediate connection to making a profit. So where do scientists get the money needed to pay for laboratory equipment, research vessels, online surveys, attendance at scientific meetings, page costs, and even the occasional ramen noodle brick cooked over a bunsen burner in those late night sessions staring at a gas chromatograph? Does the source of the funds matter? All very interesting questions for scientists and funding agencies alike.

There are a variety of possible sources of science funding, depending on whether the money is for basic research (e.g., pure science) or applied research (e.g., finding a cure for pancreatic cancer).
  • Government: Government used to be the biggest source of funding for science. But whereas 40 years ago the federal government financed more than 60% of all Research & Development in the United States, that trend has been reversed where now about 65% of R&D is being funded by private interests. The main source of government funds is the National Science Foundation, which provides almost a quarter of the funding to academics for basic research. When it comes to applied medical research, the National Institutes for Health takes over that role.

  • Industry: Industry provides much of the funding for applied scientific research, where the research is targeted at find practical (and profitable) uses of the basic scientific knowledge that has been gained.

  • Military/NASA: Quite a bit of applied scientific funding has come out of military applications and space exploration. Technically this is government, but its specialized nature warrants its own category.

  • Foundations: Private foundations are a good source of funds for both basic and applied science. Two examples are the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation ("advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances") and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ("combat disease, hunger and poverty in developing countries").

  • Professional Organizations: Some scientific organizations provide funding to its members. These include the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society's Grants-in-Aid of Research (GIAR) program, the Society for Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology, and others.

  • Advocacy Groups: To some extent, environmental and health advocacy groups may provide funds for analysis of scientific research, though largely they obtain their own funding from the sources above.

  • Self-Funding: The age of the "gentleman scientist" and the "science benefactors" are sadly long gone, but those scientists who have become financially independent are free to study science without hindrance.

Whether the source of funding influences the science is the subject for a future post.

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