One penny more.
This is a penny. One American cent. A hundredth of a dollar. Doesn’t buy much nowadays — a couple of spoonfuls of rice, an ounce or so of gasoline.
But a penny, taken out of every federal tax dollar Americans pay, is the entirety of the funding US universities will receive to conduct research and science activities. One. Penny.
More precisely. Out of a federal budget of 3.68 trillion dollars, universities receive about 40 billion to conduct research activities, or 1.08% of the total outlays of the US federal government. State and local governments add a wee bit more, but the percentage doesn’t budge much.
So about 42 billion total. Out of 3,680 billion.
A little over one penny out of every dollar paid in federal taxes.
It’s not a lot. I mean, it is, but let’s quantify that. It’s about 35 F-35C fighter jets. Or about the same as the total deduction on state and local taxes that pretty much only the 1% enjoy.
If it still sounds like a lot to you, keep in mind that that penny out of every dollar gets divided up into 8,000 or so awards, each averaging about $160,000 dollars.
In 2013, 41,350 teams of scientists and researchers applied for those 8,000 grants. That’s a really, really poor ratio. If you were a researcher at an American university, you would probably have more luck getting money from a lottery scratcher than from, say, the National Science Foundation.
That’s not the way science should function in our society. And yet, given Americans’ current feelings about taxes, and their elected representatives’ current feelings about science, that situation is not likely to change. We will still be fighting tooth and nail, writing grants, running pilots, building prototypes… for one penny out of every federal tax dollar.
Does that sound right to you?
No? Thank goodness.
So. I’m going to ask something from you, in the name of all the scientists currently working in the United States who depend on federal funding.
Give us one more penny.
Just one penny more. The average American pays about $4,500 in income taxes. Would you be willing to pay $4545?
Forty-five bucks more. That’s less than a dollar a week. It’s one dinner-and-a-movie date (if you skip the appetizers). Ten Starbucks lattes. A large bag of dog food.
Okay, okay, I’m making it sound like a lot. And you already pay a lot in taxes — I get that.
But let me show you what you get for your one penny now.
You get 1,540,000 professors who get to keep their jobs, not only doing research but training the next generation of doctors, engineers, chemists, and programmers. You get 2.5 million research papers every year. You get support and funding for 1,740,000 doctoral students (allowing them to avoid some or all of their student debt and thus eat a little less ramen). You get about 60,000 postdoctoral researchers to stay in academia instead of becoming the most overqualified baristas in the world.
That 1% of your taxes goes to about 1% of Americans — your brightest and often your hardest-working. Keeps them employed, keeps them working, keeps them from emigrating to Germany or Finland or South Korea — all of whom spend more of their GDP on research than the US.
Not only that — but you get the benefits of all that research. You get the life-saving gene-based cancer treatments being pioneered at Johns Hopkins University. You get the amazing brain research from George Mason University. You get the ground-breaking work on graphene at UT-Austin and ceramics at Penn State. You get the makerspace at MIT where urban kids can go and tinker, explore, and dream.
You get Cornell University’s imaging of black holes that is so awe-inspiring that it made it into Interstellar. You get the University of Alabama’s initiative to bring more African American kids into computer science careers. You get the snowflake-detecting high-speed camera system developed at the University of Utah that’s helping make winter driving safer all over the US. You get the North Carolina State University work that’s streamlining and optimizing food bank operations. You get MIT’s new lithium-ion battery that’s going to be in your next car, and Cornell’s new flexible electronics that will be in your next phone.
For that one penny, you help make your own life better. You help make life better for future generations. You help solve the most immediate, urgent, important problems we have. You invest in tomorrow, in the progress of human society, the diminution of human suffering, and the betterment of the human condition.
Not such a bad deal, huh? Or would you rather have that bag of dog food?
Now imagine what we could do with another penny…
Here’s what I’m asking you to do.
Write your representatives in Congress. Tell them that, regardless of your personal feelings about taxes, you unconditionally support the research efforts of American universities. Tell them that, regardless of your personal feelings about taxes, you refuse to accept further cuts to the budgets of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Share with them your belief that federal funding of university research is the lynchpin of American technological progress, crucial to maintaining and creating American jobs, and vital to the national interest.
Tell them you believe in science. Tell them you believe in scientists.
Tell them you believe in us.
Tell them that, get them to act, and I promise you, we will give you miracles.
For just one more penny.