Americans spend 3 times as much on Valentine’s Day gifts as they do on the entire NSF budget

I’m not the first science blogger to point this out, but it bears repeating: The billions we spend on funding federal scientific may sound extreme on paper, but once you realize we spend $17 billion a year on Valentine’s Day, suddenly a 5 billion dollar NASA budget doesn’t sound so crazy.

Case in point: Estimates for spending this past Valentine’s Day hover in the 17 billion to 20 billion dollar range.

The proposed 2014 budget for the National Science Foundation is 7.2 billion. Out of that 5.8 billion will go into scientific research projects, while the rest go toward building new research facilities, covering administrative costs, and funding educational outreach activities (like Bill Nye the Science Guy).

So yeah. Annual spending on the NSF is about 1/3 the amount we spend on Valentine’s Day every year.

Granted, the NSF is not the biggest federally funded scientific research agency. That honor belongs to the National Institutes of Health with a projected budget of 29.9 billion for the 2014 fiscal year.

Which means that the amount the federal government spends on the NIH is about 5.2 billion dollars less than Coca-cola’s annual revenue (in 2010). Which means that the difference between what Coca-cola makes in a year and what the federal government spends on the NIH could fund all of NASA.

I know that I’m comparing apples and oranges here, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the amount the NSF requests for its annual budget is only a fraction of what the nation as a whole is willing to spend on wine and chocolates for our significant other(s) for one day out of the entire year.

If we divide the 2014 proposed budget for the NSF by the US Census Bureau’s 2013 estimate of the US population, we end up with an annual price tag of a $22.68 for the NSF and $94.66 for the NIH per person. (Which is not nothing but also significantly less than most people spend on their phone bill over the course of a year.)

I know that there are some hard-line conservatives who would look at the above statistics and say, “That’s a preposterous amount of money. Scientists should be able to find free market support!” and that there are others who would say, “That’s ridiculously small! We need to triple it or quadruple it!”

But the main reason I’m writing this post is because I think most Americans have no idea how much we spend (or don’t spend on research.)

Think about it. According to the NSF’s most recent polls, 82% of Americans agreed that scientific research has more benefits than costs, and 4 out of 5 said that they were interested in new medical discoveries. In the section of the poll that dealt with federal spending, 4 out of 10 said we were spending too little on scientific research, 5 out of 10 said the amount of spending was about right, and 1 out of 10 said we were spending too much.

Even taking these results with a grain of salt, I think it’s reasonable to assume that most Americans are willing to put at least a few of their tax dollars toward research that could lead to better cancer treatments or bridges that are more resistant to floods and earthquakes. If the NSF’s numbers are even close to representing the public’s opinion of science, then deep cuts to the NIH and the NSF should yield huge outcries (or at least indignant phone calls) from a wide range of the political spectrum.

We haven’t seen that.

Almost every scientist I spoke to in the past year and a half was outraged about the sequester and frustrated by the fact that increases in the science budget have not kept pace with inflation. Even a cursory glance of the coverage on science-under-the-sequester reveals a community of highly trained professionals who are feeling as if they’re embattled against a political machine that wants to shut down anything and everything that might discredit their party’s values.

Scientists asking for increased funding is nothing new, but lately, the dialogue has taken on an almost desperate, pleading tone. The sequester isn’t just affecting isolated science projects; it’s having a potentially devastating impact the country’s long-term economic competitiveness.

And the public has said basically nothing.

I think that one of two things is going on. Either the public is hearing about $5 billion budgets for NASA and thinking, “Gosh! That’s a lot of money!” without realizing how many people work for NASA or the public hasn’t heard anything about the science budgets at all.

Seriously. How many of you realized that the NIH was five times the size of the NSF before I gave you the statistics above? I didn’t know that until I started researching the sequester’s impact on science last year, and I’m a biology major who grew up in one of scientific research’s biggest company towns.

Science budget issues get very little air time, and I think that’s something that needs to change. Science doesn’t happen in an economic vacuum, and when we talk about the STEM world as if it’s separate from every day economic concerns, we give credence to the idea that science isn’t relevant to most people’s day to day lives.

So let’s talk about it. Why do you think we spend so much on candy for Valentine’s day but so little on long term scientific investments?


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