Langford speaks on research funding

by Kimberley Tait | 11/25/98 6:00am

Biology Professor George Langford addressed a crowd of about 40 last night in the Wren Room of Sanborn Library on whether basic research should be funded by the private or the public sector of America.

Recently appointed by President Bill Clinton to the National Science Board, Langford will serve in an advisory capacity to both the president and Congress to ensure good scientific enterprise exists in the country today.

In this new directive role with the NSB, Langford will be tackling the ultimate question of how to generate this public excitement about basic research and set a strategy for understanding its overall value to the country.

Langford acknowledged that while there is a general national consensus on the necessity of basic research, a clear justification must exist in order for federal tax money to fund it.

"Congress says there should be some measurable benefit to society and it should happen quickly, with immediate pay-off to societal needs," Langford said.

While people often fail to make the direct connection between basic research and an increased product base, Langford emphasized that the research contributes to an invaluable long-term knowledge base that can be used as a crucial stepping stone to more detailed research and experimentation.

"Having established information available for specific development is what counts, and it's what basic research provides," he said.

Non-economic grounds now being presented for basic research support by the federal government include democratic accountability, healthcare, protection of the environment and the advancement of science as a cultural good, Langford said.

"These reasons might sound good, but they are very soft and are hard to push forward with Congress for justification of federal funding," Langford said.

According to Langford, while the National Institution of Health has a $15 to 16 billion budget, the National Science Foundation -- which funds all basic scientific research -- only has a budget of $2 to 3 billion.

"The public becomes very vocal about healthcare through strong advocate groups for different diseases, but they do not get nearly as excited about basic research. Public support makes the case," Langford said.

One of the most serious impediments to public awareness is the lack of media attention on basic research, and the intense focus on healthcare issues instead.

"Advertising is not possible because the NSB is prohibited from lobbying on its own behalf, so there's always a tension between the media and basic scientific research," Langford said, suggesting as an alternative the lobbying of informed citizens to, in turn, advise the public.

Without public funding, basic research falls into the hands of the private sector, primarily comprising corporations more interested in generating profit than upholding the ethical implications of research, he said.

Presently, corporations account for 50 percent of the total research and development budget in the country.

"In corporate-funded research, the results are considered 'privileged information,' so they remain corporate secrets and are never published to reach the general scientific public," Langford explained.

Private research also does not have the same regulatory controls and compulsory peer review that public research does.

The NSB submits an annual report to the president which is then submitted to Congress for deliberation.

Other task force reports are written on specific issues of concern, such as the current NSB report on improving the quality of scientific education in America.

"Adequate education in science makes for an informed citizenry, increasing the overall potential for science in the future," Langford said.

Langford's speech was the last in a series this term organized by Voices, a student-run organization interested in initiating intellectual discussions and debate outside of the classroom.