Metro

Nobel Prize winners worry about the state of science funding

Caltech professors Barry Barrish (left) and Kip Thorne were interviewed Tuesday in Pasadena, Calif., after they were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.
David McNew/Getty Images
Caltech professors Barry Barrish (left) and Kip Thorne were interviewed Tuesday in Pasadena, Calif., after they were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.

At MIT and Brandeis University this week, newly minted Nobel Prize winners stressed the key role that federal funding played in their breakthrough scientific research and worried that public taxpayer support for such experimentation is drying up.

Government spending for research and development has remained flat for years and threats to funding are growing, including the Trump administration’s recent budget proposal for steep reductions in science to offset increased spending in defense and border security.

“Nowadays it’s not so easy to find a champion,” said MIT professor emeritus Rainer Weiss, one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday.

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Weiss and his co-winners, Kip S. Thorne and Barry C. Barish, won for their roles in creating the LIGO — Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — that helped detect gravitational waves in space.

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Although Weiss began his work in the 1970s, the group didn’t discover proof that Albert Einstein’s gravitational theories existed until 2015.

The National Science Foundation initially gave him about $40,000 to fund his work, gradually increasing its financial support for the project to its current level of $40 million a year, Weiss said.

That long-term commitment to research whose goals aren’t always clear-cut has been wavering in the federal government, he said.

“They took a hell of a gamble,” Weiss said.

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“We weren’t sure what we would find,” he added.

Limited federal funding has meant scientists are having a tougher time getting grants, especially if they’re new investigators or want to do basic foundational research that doesn’t tackle an immediate problem or government need, said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Funding is insecure,” Rosenberg said.

“The signals to researchers are very nerve-racking . . . The competition for funding is fairly brutal,” Rosenberg said.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, federal agencies spent an estimated $147.5 billion on research and development in 2016, about $5 billion less than it did in 2003.

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Advocates for smaller government argue that some federal agencies have overstepped their role and are backing scientific studies that are wasteful and unnecessary.

In presenting the Trump administration budget in May, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the science agency cuts reflected a “taxpayer-first” approach.

The administration’s budget proposal, for example, recommended an 11 percent trim to the National Science Foundation’s funding.

“Does it mean that we are antiscience?” Mulvaney said at the time. “Absolutely not.”

And earlier this year, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona published an annual listing of questionable government spending that highlighted several grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Among Flake’s targets were $5 million the government awarded researchers to study the drinking habits of college students and whether interventions work, and $300,000 spent investigating whether playing with Barbie dolls and Transformers influenced the facial recognition abilities of boys and girls.

“We can do more without spending more by simply making better sense out of how we spend every cent,” according to Flake’s report.

Congress has so far been reluctant to adopt the steep cuts the Trump administration has recommended, instead holding most agency research spending flat or, in the case of the health institutes, opting to increase its budget.

Still, scientists said the government is tilting toward funding research that targets specific diseases or problems, and is less inclined to finance basic questions, such as how the universe works or what makes the body’s clock tick.

Michael Rosbash, the Brandeis professor who was part of a trio that won a Nobel Prize this week for their study into the body’s circadian rhythm, said he isn’t sure in the current climate that the NIH would have funded their research.

Their discoveries that every living thing relies on circadian rhythms, which in humans control the body’s critical functions, influencing sleep, behavior, hormone levels, body temperature, and metabolism, began with a study of fruit flies.

Deep research into the humble fruit fly might be a tough sell in a time of limited government funding, Rosbash said.

Yet their research could now have far-reaching implications for work on Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and other health problems.

“We did the groundwork on this when funding was easier,” Rosbash said. “I have my doubts now.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.