United States | July 13, 2017 at 12:00 pm

Science, Sensationalized: How the Press Undermines Research Funding


“Killer T cells (green and red) surround a cancer cell (blue, center)”  –NICHD via Flickr

In mid-March, the Trump administration released its proposed budget for 2018. It included deep cuts to federal scientific agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. In its current form, the bill is unlikely to pass through Congress without a fight, as research funding has traditionally received bipartisan support.

Yet these figures—including a staggering 18 percent cut to the NIH—should be a source of immense concern not only to scientists, but to anyone who cares about public health, evidence-based reasoning, or the preservation of the United States’ status as a mecca of research and intellectual activity. Even in the absence of outright hostility to science—of which there seems to be no shortage in the current administration—if lawmakers fail to keep research funding a priority, we will all lose out.

Judging by the flurry of coverage following the cuts, one would guess that these decreases were unprecedented. But researchers know that funding has been tight over the past eight years. According to a Science Magazine editorial, the NIH’s 2012 budget funded 18 percent less research than in 2004, and budget sequestration mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 has continued to reduce research funding since then.

Unfortunately, rather than illuminating the inner workings of the scientific enterprise or explaining science’s importance as an institution, mainstream news publications tend to instead leverage its superficial narrative potential. At a result of these practices, science is consistently reduced to a political conflict over a grab bag of flashpoint issues. This distorted coverage crucially omits the centrality of federal funding to science’s mission of discovery, an indispensable means of increasing the human quality of life*.

Back to the Basics

In order to recognize why media coverage of federal funding has been lacking, it is important to understand why federal funding is important. Research exists on a continuum, and some slants of research are inherently less compatible with private funding. At one end, basic science aims to understand the natural world at a fundamental level and has few immediately clear applications. On the other end is translational research, which “translates” the fundamental discoveries of basic research into methods for the treatment and prevention of disease, or other real-world applications.

In an interview with the HPR, George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, describes how basic research can lead to translational successes: “One of my colleagues, Bob Horvitz, did research on a very primitive worm called C. elegans … He studied it from a pure curiosity-driven perspective. He identified mutations that caused certain cells to survive, and that allowed him to define the genetic pathway of programmed cell death.” Daley explained that one of these genes was later found to be related to a human lymphoma gene. Many years down the line, Horvitz’s original “curiosity-driven” research—which at the time had no clear applications—led to the development of lifesaving drugs.

Thus, to promote advances in public health and the treatment of disease, we must support a diverse portfolio of research. This includes both the translational research that leads directly to treatments, and the basic research that provides the fundamental understanding necessary for translation.

The crucial basic research that eventually leads to public health improvements, however, often years down the road, may not have immediate therapeutic relevance at the time it is conducted. As a result, private sources such as pharmaceutical companies are often less likely to fund basic research. “When companies fund science, they tend to be much more focused and mission-oriented,” said Daley. “When the NIH funds science, they certainly have their mission-oriented efforts, but they are also inclined to fund very basic work.” Basic research yields great discoveries, but it requires an expensive long-term investment that is not always profitable for companies.

Even when it’s possible to shift away from federal funding to private sources like foundations, there are additional issues to consider. A reliance on private funding can result in deference to donor priorities. “The NIH allows you to pick a topic … and spend a career trying to chip away at it,” Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health professor Sara Bleich told the HPR, “whereas if you are in the foundation world, you sort have to bunny hop from topic to topic depending on what’s being funded … and often where discovery comes from is really intricate knowledge of a single topic.”

The stakes are clear: basic research is our primary means of understanding the world around us and a cornerstone of public health. In addition to scientific discovery, ample research funding is integral to maintaining American preeminence in academia. As Harvard Chan School assistant professor Michael Barnett puts it, “Funding for basic science is what powers the engines of our most productive elite universities and research enterprises that attract the most talented intellectuals, scientists, and engineers from across the world.”

Forgetting About Funding

But in the media, the “hive mind” of science, a thriving ecosystem of researchers suckled on the bosom of federal funding, is stripped of its institutional beauty and reduced to a cheap political sideshow—a mildly interesting narrative to tell when sexier topics like immigration, gun control, and the economy are having an off day. This coverage overemphasizes a handful of issues and politicizes the topic of science, pulling it into partisan firefights that obscure important discussions on funding of research.

For instance, after Trump’s election in November, news organizations sensed a juicy narrative and jumped on it. Capitalizing on post-election uncertainty, outlets published a flood of articles speculating on Trump’s potential actions on science. As if the entire issue of “science” could be boiled down to climate change and other hot topics, discussion of funding for federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation was either omitted or mentioned as an afterthought.

A particularly egregious Washington Post piece titled, “Trump and Pence on science, in their own words” listed quotes on scientific issues organized into headings by topic. These included “climate change,” “vaccines and autism,” “Ebola,” “wind farms,” “lightbulbs and cancer,” “the ozone layer,” “fracking,” and “Pence on evolution.” In the entire article, there was no mention of federal funding, the NIH, or the NSF. The author dedicated an entire paragraph to discussing the merits of compact fluorescent lamps, yet research funding received no mention.

The distillation of “science” down to a grab bag of politicized issues only fortifies the perception that caring about science simply entails having the “correct” positions on a laundry list of important political issues. Implicitly, a checklist representation of science reinforces the erroneous notion that science does not require a strong and sustained commitment. This politicized, narrative-based and hot-topic coverage allows the public to ignore the dearth of research funding. It fails to make readers aware of the immense importance of public research funding in an age where anti-intellectualism is pervasive, yet supporting scientific discovery remains as important as ever.

Public Opinion, Political Capital

In a Politico article in the wake of Trump’s election, Bill Scher wrote, “A majority of public opinion can mean more than a majority in Congress.” This sentiment should remind us that to rejuvenate federal funding of research, it’s vital to educate and engage the public. Issues like climate change, evolution, and cancer receive a huge amount of public attention, and for this reason they are addressed by lawmakers. To protect federal science funding, the public needs to be outraged when the NIH might receive an 18 percent cut.

Some may question whether adversaries of research funding actually exist. One need look no further than a recent National Review article extolling Representative Jeff Flake’s (R – Ariz.) “Wastebook,” an annual publication that compiles examples of wasteful government spending. This year’s edition included several examples of research funded by NIH or NSF grants, and charges “the nation’s most prestigious science agencies” with “squandering resources … by investigating matters most would consider obvious or even absurd.”

Almost everyone, including Flake, agrees that we should fund beneficial translational initiatives like curing cancer. But Flake’s analysis betrays a lack of understanding of the scientific process. By definition, basic research doesn’t have immediately clear applications, and may seem absurd to some. Nevertheless, it isn’t politicians’ job to determine the merit of research proposals.

Rather than reducing “science” to flashy political issues, the press must educate the public on how science really works—by using basic, curiosity-driven research to arrive at fundamental discoveries, and then translating these basic principles into treatments and preventative measures against disease. In addition, the press must demonstrate how federal funding is integral to that mission. With lawmakers who don’t realize the value of basic science, we need journalists and citizens who do.

A Word of Caution: Politicizing Science

While it is imperative that the public rally around public funding of research, this must be done without making science funding a political issue. The skewed portrayal of science in the media is dangerous because it inherently politicizes science, repeatedly tying it to issues split down party lines. Appropriating the entire concept of “science” to refer to a list of highly controversial political issues is effective in rallying party partisans around certain causes, but falsely implies that science is—or should be—a solely Democratic or Republican issue.

As Mischa Fisher wrote in the Atlantic, “Science’s political constituency is too small and the coalition supporting it is not powerful enough to protect research budgets against other priorities … If it is perceived as a partisan litmus test, it will not continue to exist in its current state as the government’s other financial obligations continue to grow.” This is not to say that issues like climate change are exclusively political issues, or that denial of climate change is somehow legitimate political dissent rather than scientific illiteracy. It is important to remember, as Fisher reminds us, that although the right may be home to global warming skeptics, the left has its fair share of anti-GMO hardliners.

Climate change is the perfect example of how a cut-and-dry scientific issue can become controversial if it is represented consistently in partisan terms. Let’s not drag funding into the fray as well. Those who believe that science is a positive force in our society today should be highly motivated to ensure the federal government continues to support and nurture this essential enterprise. Federal funding of research is a crucial issue that needs bipartisan support, and it should be represented that way in the media.

Image Credit: Flickr / NICHD

*Correction, July 13th: A previous version of this article has been updated to more accurately reflect the purpose of science’s mission of discovery as “an indispensable means of increasing the human quality of life.”


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