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Goverment Spending Everyone Loves: Science and Health

David Callahan

A funny thing happened on Fox Business News last night, where I appeared on a panel to discuss President Obama's new initiative to map the human brain, spending $100 million next year to get started: Everyone on the show gave a thumbs up to the plan, including my two conservative co-panelists and the host. 

That's the first time I've ever been on the same side as everyone else on Fox. 

I suppose I shouldn't have been very surprised. Years ago I did a graduate paper on why NASA has generally enjoyed strong bipartisan political support despite the fact that it didn't have an obvious constituency beyond the aerospace industry. The reason is simply that Americans of all ideologies are excited about exploring the unknown and cracking the mysteries of science. 

I know, I know: Republicans have a long track record of attacking science, particularly climate science, and Paul Krugman recently dubbed them the "ignorance caucus" for their recent effort to eliminate all funding for social science research through the National Science Foundation. (Although anyone who has spent a weekend at an American Political Science Association conference can't help but think that the GOP may have a point in this particular case.)

I know, also, that Tea Party Republicans have gone after NIH budgets aggressively since early 2011.

But there just isn't a consensus among conservatives for cutting this kind of government spending. For instance, after Obama announced his brain initiative, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said "Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding." What's more, just yesterday, Cantor proposed his own new medical research initiative that would tackle autism. 

Beyond the basic American reflex to conquer the unknown, science funding is popular because much of it promises to cure diseases that the public fears. For instance, the multi-billion dollar Human Genome Project was enthusiastically backed by bipartisan majorities in Congress for years because sequencing DNA was supposed to help fight any number of dread diseases. Obama's brain project is being sold on similar grounds, and particularly as a way to make progress against Alzheimer's. 

With millions of Americans suffering every year from a whole range of diseases, and with legions of well-organized relatives and survivors dedicated to banishing those diseases, it's no wonder that the budget of the National Institutes for Health more than doubled in the late 1990s and early 2000s, even as Republicans controlled Congress and other areas of spending stalled or declined. The budget of the National Science Foundation soared, too, although not by as much. 

Funding for scientific research is also popular among corporate and tech leaders, who know all too well that public companies focused on short-term returns don't spend enough money on basic scientific research. As well, a recent survey of wealthy Americans found that scientific research is one of the few areas where the wealthy want government to spend more. 

Broad public and elite support for science is a good thing, since science innovation is so closely linked to long-term prosperity and global competitiveness. So next time you find yourself defending government, this is definitely an area worth mentioning.