Why do we the public support science? The general answer is that science produces products we like, improves our possibilities of a healthy life, and increases wealth. A less general answer is that science informs us about how the Earth works and how the Earth fits into the universe. Most people would agree that science should not provide us with ethical judgments or define good and evil. The result of this dichotomy between science and ethics in the broad sense is that scientists live in a divided world. Each scientist has definite views on what is good for society and what is evil, and these views can differ among scientists in different cultures. But as a scientist he or she cannot use scientific information to define good and evil and therefore to advise governments about what actions to take in particular problems. All this is very vague until you bring it into the arguments of our time – abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty for criminals, nuclear power, fish farming in the ocean, tar-sands oil, fracking – the list goes on.
Scientific information is vital to the decisions made on all these issues. Consider fracking for oil and gas. One scientific question is: Does fracking contaminate the water table? Does fracking release the greenhouse gas methane to the atmosphere? Given adequate scientific information, governments and the public may support or ban fracking, and to support or ban is not a scientific issue but an ethical one. Public opinion of course is affected by scientific findings, and the job of the scientist is to make these findings precise and accurate. But to do that requires money.
The result of all this is that governments and the public have developed a ranking system of the sciences. At the top of the totem pole are physics and chemistry (and their associated engineering sciences) because their findings and products are typically thought to be very useful – cars, computers, IPhones, medical drugs. Not only are they useful but they make lots of money for many people. Geology is also somewhere near the top of the pole because it produces oil and minerals, but suffers somewhat from being responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis. Somewhat lower on the totem pole are the biological sciences. Molecular biology is closely akin to chemistry and offers medical promises so it is high on the totem pole. Biochemistry and physiology follow closely, but they are somewhat suspect unless they promise that their results can be applied to human wellbeing. Near the bottom of the totem pole are the ecologists who describe how the web of life works on Earth and how it has been affected by human actions. The top position of ecology goes to natural history, and bird watching brings much happiness to many people. TV programs like those of David Attenborough bring images of many areas and species that few will be able to visit or see. Descriptive ecology fares slightly less well because it seems harmless to most people but is unable to generate money in any useful manner. Conservation ecology sits at the bottom of the ecology heap, falling into the dark side because it continually points out problems of what humans have done or are doing to life on earth, to ecosystem processes that are essential to a healthy environment. Only climate scientists are lower on the totem pole than ecologists because they are always talking about the coming train wreck of climate change, with the ethical implication that we the public should be doing something by changing our habits.
The results are that funding for scientific work follows the totem pole. Ecologists fare poorly along with organismal biology with the result that we do not have an inventory of life on Earth or an adequate understanding of how most of the Earth’s ecosystems operate. Climate scientists are perhaps fortunate because the gathering of climate data has been extensive because people need weather information to drive to work or plant their crops. Consequently, even though it is at the lower end of the totem pole climate science has much data to utilize, although many do not like the ensuing message. I suspect many governments of the day would like to close down all the weather stations to save money as well as to avoid further negative findings.
There is unlikely to be any move soon in the relative positions on the totem pole for the different sciences. We ecologists live in a trickle down world where some funding sieves through to the lower layers of biology, partly by accident and partly because there are some who think that we should know more about our Earth’s biological heritage.
Fortin, J.-M. and D. J. Currie. 2013. Big science vs. little science: How scientific impact scales with funding. PLoS ONE 8:e65263.
Haufe, C. 2013. Why do funding agencies favor hypothesis testing? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44:363-374.
May, R. M. 1997. The scientific wealth of nations. Science 275:793-796.