Why Do Physical Scientists Run Off with the Budget Pie?

Take any developed country on Earth and analyse their science budget. Break it down into the amounts governments devote to physical science, biological science, and social science to keep the categories simple. You will find that the physical sciences gather the largest fraction of the budget-for-science pie, the biological sciences much less, and the social sciences even less. We can take Canada as an example. From the data released by the research councils, it is difficult to construct an exact comparison but within the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada the average research grant in Chemistry and Physics is 70% larger than the average in Ecology and Evolution, and this does not include supplementary funding for various infrastructure. By contrast the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council reports research grants that appear to be approximately one-half those of Ecology and Evolution, on average. It seems clear in science in developed countries that the rank order is physical sciences > biological sciences > social sciences.

We might take two messages from this analysis. If you listen to the news or read the newspapers you will note that most of the problems discussed are social problems. Then you might wonder why social science funding is so low on our funding agenda in science. You might also note that environmental problems are growing in importance and yet funding for environmental research is also at the low end of our spending priority.

The second message you may wish to ask is: why should this be? In particular, why do physical scientists run off with the funding pie while ecologists and environmental scientists scratch through the crumbs? I do not know the answer to this question. I do know that it has been this way for at least the last 50 years, so it is not a recent trend. I can suggest several partial answers to this question.

  1. Physical scientists produce along with engineers the materials for war in splendid guns and aircraft and submarines that our governments believe will keep us safe.
  2. Physical scientists produce economic growth by their research so clearly they should be more important.
  3. Physical sciences produce scientific progress on a time scale of months while ecologists and environmental scientists produce research progress on a time scale of years and decades.
  4. Physical scientists do the research that produce good things like iPhones and computers while ecologists and environmental scientists produce mostly bad news about the deterioration in the earth’s ecosystem services.
  5. Physical scientists and engineers run the government and all the major corporations so they propagate the present system.

Clearly there are specific issues that are lost in this general analysis. Medical science produces progress in diagnosis and treatment as a result of the research of biochemists, molecular biologists, and engineers. Pharmaceutical companies produce compounds to control diseases with the help of molecular biologists and physiologists. So research in these specific areas must be supported well because they affect humans directly. Medical sciences are the recipient of much private money in the quest to avoid illness.

Lost in this are a whole other set of lessons. Why were multi-billions of dollars devoted to the Large Hadron Collider Project which had no practical value at all and has only led to the need for a Very Large Hadron Collider in future to waste even more money? The answer seems to lie somewhere in the interface of three points of view – it may be needed for military purposes, it is a technological marvel, and it is part of physics which is the only science that is important. The same kind of thinking seems to apply to space research which is wildly successful burning up large amounts of money while generating more military competition via satellites and in addition providing good movie images for the taxpayers.

While many people now support efforts on the conservation of biodiversity and the need for action on climate change, the funding is not given to achieve these goals either from public or private sources. One explanation is that these are long-term problems and so are difficult to get excited about when the lifespan of the people in power will not extend long enough to face the consequences of current decision making. Finally, many people are convinced that technological fixes will solve all environmental problems so that the problems environmental scientists worry about are trivial (National Research Council 2015, 2015a). Physics will fix climate change by putting chemicals into the stratosphere, endangered species will be resurrected by DNA, and fossil fuels will never run out. And as a bonus Canada and Scandinavia will be warmer and what is wrong with that?

An important adjunct to this discussion is the question of why economics has risen to the top of the heap along with physical sciences. As such the close triumvirate of physical sciences-engineering-economics seems to run the world. We should keep trying to change that if we have concern for the generations that follow.


National Research Council. 2015. Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC. 140 pp. ISBN: 978-0-309-36818-6.

National Research Council. 2015a. Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC. 234 pp. ISBN: 978-0-309-36821-6.

11 thoughts on “Why Do Physical Scientists Run Off with the Budget Pie?

  1. Steve Leonard

    Charley, I think you’ve pretty much nailed it, but I want to throw one more idea into the mix- power. To generalise very broadly, the physical sciences produce knowledge/things that promote (or at least don’t challenge) and benefit dominant social/political/economic power structures. Much ecological research carries, at least implicitly, a challenge to these structures, as does social science (perhaps more often explicitly). Seems to correlate with your rank order of funding…

  2. Jeremy Fox

    I’m puzzled by your passing remark about the “useless” LHC. Particle physicists were in widespread agreement that looking for the Higgs boson was the most important task for basic research in their field. You’ve argued previously for the importance of basic research in ecology (or so I thought), so I don’t follow why you dismiss its value in physics.

    Now, the LHC certainly costs an awful lot, and it’s absolutely right to ask hard questions about our research priorities. And indeed, I think those questions are being asked in some areas of the physical sciences–think for instance of how the US government isn’t willing to pony up enough to mount a serious manned spaceflight program. But if the argument is that we should spend a lot more on basic ecology because it’s useful in concrete, practical ways, well, that seems to me like an obviously losing argument. If you want to distribute funding on the basis of concrete, practical usefulness, you’re not arguing for redistribution of money from fundamental physics to ecology. You’re arguing for redistribution of money away from all basic science into other things.

    And I’m surprised to hear that argument coming from someone who’s previously, and rightly, expressed skepticism about the applied relevance of a lot of basic research in ecology (e.g., regarding biodiversity and ecosystem services). Is it your view that ecology is in fact much more useful than physics, but that ecologists as a group are seriously mistaken about what makes ecology useful?

    So I’m confused as to your views. Perhaps the fault is mine for not reading sufficiently carefully.

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Thanks, Jeremy, for good questions and comments. First, I would like to state that I support basic research in all the sciences, including physics. I object to the enormous cost of the LHC and I await a blog from a physicist telling us how much other research in physics was not funded because the money went to the LHC. I doubt that they are all happy with the division of funds. So I would argue that we should support all basic science in all areas but think more carefully about the subdivision of funds within the sciences.
      My concern is that these decisions are made much higher up the food chain than at the level of the struggling committees dividing up their small pieces of the pie. Someone up high thinks for example that in Canada a considerable amount of our science funding should go to support industries that are profitable private enterprises. I would argue for all government science funding to go to public good research.
      I think that what makes particular sciences useful must change over time. At the present the most serious global problem is the mixture of climate change with overpopulation, with the impacts being visible in food security, biodiversity loss, and human health. Clearly climate change and overpopulation both have practical applied issues as well as basic science issues, and we need support on both fronts. I see physical sciences having a part to play in these global problems, but biology and particularly ecology seem to me to be the key players. Hence I think the pie should be re-divided. And if we think that the next 50 years is key for slowing climate change, the LHC was a massive cost to the world, not a benefit.
      I agree with your last comments, in particular that at present ecology is more useful than physics for the long term health of the Earth. And I do believe that ecologists are completely frustrated by being fed crumbs of funding while they are forced to avoid large-scale studies on long-term issues that are very expensive to carry out and will not be funded by the private sector. We need to think big but have been taught that we are small fry useful for light entertainment but not for addressing the critical issues of our day.

      1. Brian McGill

        I think this gets to a 6th hypothesis that I think is non-trivially important (although I agree with all five of yours).

        Physicists and astronomers have evolved a culture of hashing out their difference behind closed doors and then going for the big ask with the winners presenting and the losers keeping quiet. In ecology the losers don’t keep quiet (and generally don’t have the closed door meetings to prioritize funding). I recently got to watch this process play out in a physics/ecology interface at NASA so I personally believe this distinction is real.

        So this leaves us ecologists looking disorganized and not going anywhere particular. Easy not to fund.

          1. Jeremy Fox

            And following up on my own thought: I think the reason astronomers and particle physicists act in a coordinated way to get behind a few big asks is because they have to. I know little of those fields and so am happy to be corrected. But my impression from afar is that you can’t *do* much astronomy or particle physics without new, massively-expensive instruments that will be widely-shared by the research community. Now, that doesn’t completely explain the contrast with ecology (again, NEON aside…), since I know that astronomers do indeed debate *which* candidate “big asks” they’re all going to get behind. But it’s a big part of the explanation.

            In contrast, ecologists mostly think that there’s lots of ecology well worth doing that can be done by individual investigators or small teams funded by grants of a few 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars per year. And they’re right to think so, in my view.

            So while it may be that you don’t get the big bucks without getting a bunch of people together and making a big ask, I don’t know that failure to do so (NEON aside…) indicates political incompetence among ecologists. It just means the nature of the field is different than astronomy or particle physics.

            The other thing I’d say is that there are asks of intermediate size between “ordinary single-PI research grant” and “NEON/major satellite/LHC”. Think of the Ecotron facility at Silwood Park back in the mid-90s. A fairly big ask at the time (15 million pounds sterling? going by memory…), enough to spark public objections from those who thought it was taking away money from the ecological research community at large. But not nearly as big an ask as something like NEON, never mind the LHC or the Hubble telescope or whatever.

  3. Jeff Ollerton

    I sometimes throw out questions like this in my final year undergraduate course, usually focussing on the “search for life on Mars” versus the quest to preserve life on Earth. When I make the point that if life is (or was) present on Mars, it will be there to discover for a long time in the future, whereas the same is not true of much of earth’s biodiversity, I receive comments that the search for extraterrestrial life is “exciting”, implying that biodiversity research on Earth is not (unless it’s whales or tigers, but that’s a different set of gripes).

    So part of the answer to this might be that physical scientists have found ways of selling their science as “exciting” to the general public, and the funders. Which it is, I’d be the first to admit. But I don’t think it should be a priority. So how do we sell our science as exciting? Without falling back on whales and tigers….

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Jeff – the irony for me is that TV is full of David Attenborough shows that are most exciting, as well as many wildlife photographers who produce amazing images. The behavioural ecologists seem very good at getting sound bytes on radio and TV about their work. But much of ecology produces exiting results that implicitly tell people to change their habits, protect national parks, stop overfishing, and the contrast is that astronomy and space science do not challenge people to do anything different so they do not confront established practices. But there must be much social science here that could produce comments on this conundrum.

      1. Jeff Ollerton

        Yes, agreed, and in fact some of the most interesting work that’s coming out of ecosystem services research involves collaborations with social scientists.

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