The Government and Research: A Co-dependent Relationship

From October 1st to the 17th, the US government shut down most of its administrative functions as a result of Congressional failure to pass a funding bill for the 2014 fiscal year. During those sixteen days, the Anti-Deficiency Act prohibited federal employees from “making or authorizing an expenditure from, or creating or authorizing an obligation under, any appropriation or fund in excess of the amount available in the appropriation or fund unless authorized by law [1].” Thus, federal employees would risk fines, imprisonment, or even termination, simply for checking their work emails [2]. Because Congress insisted against a consensus on funding, more than 800,000 federal employees were furloughed and $24 billion were lost. The projected GDP growth of the fourth quarter reduced from 3 to 2.4 percent [3].

Unfortunately, besides the many pictures and posts of people jumping over fences into closed national parks and monuments on websites such as Reddit and BuzzFeed, the aftermath of the shutdown is not widely known to the public. However, more substantial consequences have arisen due to the government’s bickering over funding. While people were trespassing into the Washington Monument and the National Zoo, scientists were barred from continuing their research.  As a result, much important data was lost and costly, high-maintenance projects were left idle. The scientific community is dependent upon the government in terms of funding. The government shutdown and its effect on the nation’s research and development (R&D) raise questions about whether research should be more privately funded.

The federal government was shut down largely because of the laws and regulations outlined in the Anti-Deficiency Act, which obscurely delineates federal employees as “excepted” and “non-excepted.” Those labeled as “excepted” were required to work during the shutdown, which broadly included those involved in “national security, public safety, and programs written in permanent law, like Social Security [4].” Research, which includes the National Institute of Health, NASA, and many other programs, were deemed “non-excepted” and temporarily suspended. The National Institute of Health turned away as many as 200 new patients from joining clinical trials. Scientists at NASA had to stop conducting tests on the James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace the Hubble in 2018 [5].  Geologists were unable to travel to Antarctica to study climate change and thus missed the time window for collecting data on melting permafrost.  Scientists were not only losing precious data but also seeing their projects’ funding go to waste.  Moreover, the shutdown has prevented scientists from conducting research that would help secure funding for future projects.

Unfortunately, the furlough is yet another blow to the scientific community. The budget cuts proposed by Congress have disoriented scientists by delaying research and forcing layoffs [6].  The National Science Foundation has set new requirements for grant proposals that call for “broader impacts” of proposed projects, which will make it harder for researchers to obtain funding for their work [7].  Clearly, the effects of the government’s actions extend far beyond the shutdown.

If research continues to fluctuate according to government actions, we are posed with the question of whether research should be publicly or privately funded. First, let us look at how R&D is funded. In 2009, private industry contributed $247.4 billion, or 62 percent of total R&D spending, while the federal government spent $124.4 billion, accounting for 31 percent of the nation’s spending on R&D [8].  The R&D funding debate has long been about whether public or private funding creates meaningful results or whether one displaces the other in funding opportunities. However, it is important to examine more closely how different types of R&D are funded.

R&D is divided into three categories of work: basic research, applied research, and development. Basic research, as defined by the NSF, “gain[s] more complete understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts, without specific applications toward processes or products in mind.”  Applied research is aimed at “knowledge necessary for determining the means by which a recognized need may be met.” Finally, development research involves the “systematic use of the knowledge or understanding gained from research, directed toward the production of useful materials, devices, systems, or methods, including design and development of prototypes and processes.” The statistics show that public funding contributes more to basic and applied research, while industry attends to development [8].

Although R&D is greatly funded by private companies, the government remains the primary benefactor for basic research.  R&D is therefore significantly affected by the government’s fickle behavior toward funding.  Basic and applied research take large hits when the government cannot compromise or neglects R&D. Currently, basic and applied research focus on areas largely consisting of climate change and biomedical research. Because these focus areas are practical matters for the future, the government is influential in the progress of R&D and must remain aware of its responsibilities and accountability in that regard.

1. “Antideficiency Act Background,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, accessed November 2nd,
2. Brian Fung, “Federal workers who check their e-mail during a shutdown will be breaking the law.” The Washington Post, September 30th, 2012, accessed November 2nd, 2013,
3. Eliana Dockterman, “Here’s How Much The Government Shutdown Cost The Economy.” Time, October 17th, 2013, accessed November 2nd, 2013,
4. Brad Plumer, “Absolutely everything you need to know about how the government shutdown will work.” The Washington Post, September 30th, 2013, accessed November 2nd, 2013,
5. Andrew A. Rosenberg, “The Government Shutdown Was Temporary, Its Damage to Science Permanent.” Scientific American, October 17th, 2013, accessed November 2nd, 2013,
6. Ariana Eunjung Cha, “Budget sequester squeezes scientific research.” The Washington Post, September 24th, 2013, accessed November 2nd, 2013,
7. Robert Frodeman, “The ‘Broader Impacts’ of Sequestration on Science.” Science Progress, April 24th, 2013, accessed November 2nd, 2013,
8. Joseph V. Kennedy, “The Sources and Uses of U.S. Science Funding,” The New Atlantis, Number 36, Summer 2012, pp. 3-22.

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Michaela Lee is a freshman in Cornell University majoring in Biological Sciences. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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