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The Benefits of Science

Jamie L. Vernon

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We’re in the business of communicating science. Therefore we rely on a steady supply of new and exciting breakthroughs to share with you. Needless to say, I was delighted when Congress passed the 2016 omnibus spending bill with billions going to new scientific research. The bill boasts a $50 billion increase in federal funding over 2015 levels, including a $2 billion bump to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget. Additional increases were approved for science programs at the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and other agencies.

This good news comes after several years of shrinking or stagnating budgets at many of the government agencies responsible for subsidizing science. However, as every scientist knows, there’s no such thing as a free lunch; high expectations are attached to these new funds.

With $85 million designated for the BRAIN initiative, this means the NIH must deliver on its promise to develop new ways to treat, cure, and prevent brain disorders. Similarly, NASA is required to use $175 million to not only conduct a mission to Jupiter, but also to put a lander on Europa, the planet’s ice-covered moon. And while approving $1 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor volcano hazards, Congress denied funds to launch a thermal imaging satellite that would help manage water resources in drought-stricken areas.

The research priorities set by legislators raise an important question: Why do we use tax dollars to fund science? The answers will vary immensely depending on whom you ask. Expectations of scientific inquiry have always followed two different tracks: one focused on alleviating immediate concerns; the other, on more curiosity-driven investigations. The tension between these two perspectives over the years has influenced our commitment to research.

For millennia, humans have systematically benefited from elucidating the mysteries of the cosmos. Evidence shows that prehistoric humans acquired information about agriculture and astronomy that aided in growing crops while simultaneously illuminating basic principles of nature. From early Mesopotamian proto-scientists to Greco-Roman theorists, natural investigators have regularly delivered innovations, both practical and metaphysical. Subsequent technological progress achieved through the Enlightenment and contemporary secular sciences has been accompanied by revelations about the inner workings of the universe. Therefore it seems that advances in basic science are intertwined with real-world outcomes.

In this issue, we feature research that spans the continuum of government-funded projects, from climate science to vision research. In “Spring Budburst in a Changing Climate”, Richard Primack and Amanda Gallinat describe the challenges we face as climate change causes leaf emergence times to desynchronize from evolved bird and insect activity patterns; in “Meat-Eating Among the Earliest Humans”, Briana Pobiner discusses the physical and social consequences of adding meat to the human diet more than a million years ago; and in “The Visual World of Infants”, Russell Hamer tackles persistent myths about what human infants cannot see—useful information for parents who are monitoring the development of their child’s visual abilities. These insights, like so many scientific findings, bridge the divide between fundamental and applied knowledge. Who knew that the historical journals of Thoreau would be instrumental in protecting today’s blueberry crops from spring frost?

With a better grasp of the benefits of science, as seen here, I find that we gain a greater appreciation for why we invest in it. —Jamie L. Vernon (@JLVernonPhD)

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