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.
- 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.
- Physical scientists produce economic growth by their research so clearly they should be more important.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.