Why Federal Support is Critical for Basic Research

Kitty L. Milliken, MA ’77, PhD ’85, is a senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Low-Temp Geochemistry Lab(PRINT_CMYK)Basic research into how our planet operates is an essential investment. That’s why it is alarming that the reauthorization of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007, or America COMPETES Act—passed by the U.S. House in May and soon to be debated by the Senate—critically underfunds the geosciences during a time when understanding of the Earth has never been more important.

The proposed reauthorization would cut federal funding of geosciences by $165 million, or about 8 percent, from the White House’s budget request. The proposal, as described in a recent letter from nearly 20 scientific organizations that represent tens of thousands of Earth and space scientists, “disregards the societal benefits of earth, ocean, atmospheric and polar research.”

As a scientist who has seen firsthand the impact that research such as this can have, I urge everyone to join the call of these scientific organizations requesting that the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 invest in geosciences at a level that will support economic competitiveness, public safety, and national security.

Opponents of support for earth sciences may argue that only research with obvious and immediate societal value needs to be funded. But basic research is like mining for rare but precious and long-lasting things. Indeed, most of what you dig up turns out not to be valuable, but the jewels you do find enrich the whole of society forever. And you rarely know which research will uncover these precious jewels.

Basic research is like mining for rare but precious and long-lasting things. Indeed, most of what you dig up turns out not to be valuable, but the jewels you do find enrich the whole of society forever.

My own decades of research in a specialized and little-noticed geoscience field provide an informative lesson on the value of investigations into the basic operating rules of planet Earth.

In the mid-1980s, laid off from a major oil company, I returned to the University of Texas at Austin as a low-paid researcher and took up the study of mud. Esoteric is a fair description of how this work was perceived. Thinking of Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards, given annually to programs and researchers he considered to be wasting public money, I would privately cringe, hoping no Senate staffer would notice a woman in Texas paid by the National Science Foundation to use expensive government-funded equipment to analyze tiny crystals in mud.

But with support from several federal science programs, I pursued work on the basic nature of the rocks made from mud (known as shales) that constitute two-thirds of sedimentary rocks on Earth. Thirty years later that esoteric research has contributed to the recent and ongoing breakthroughs in the production of shale oil and gas, abundant and economic domestic resources that have transformed the global energy landscape.

The most successful petroleum companies are science-based because an understanding of nature is fundamental to making accurate predictions and prudent drilling decisions. Private industry cannot fund very basic research, however, because the risks are too high, the payback times unpredictable and, in many cases, long. No rational company would have funded the shale work that I was doing in 1988.

It is clear that the benefit of unconventional resources to our economic and energy security was won not only by industry risk-taking and engineering acumen, but also by the risk-taking of federal science programs in decades past. Calls for reductions in federal support for geoscience research, as passed in the House version of the America COMPETES Reauthorization, are short-sighted and neglectful of our future. The Senate version can perhaps represent a wiser vision.

Knowledge of how our planet works applies broadly. Earthquake behavior in the coastal regions of Japan and Sumatra is affected by exactly the same rock properties that control shale response to hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas production. Knowing in advance how an investment in basic science will benefit society is difficult. But over the long term, benefits of science investment are certain because predictions and decisions based on accurate scientific understanding are more likely to be right than ones made in ignorance.

Funding acquisition of basic knowledge of our world is something we should expect our lawmakers to embrace.

Jiemin Lu and Brent Elliott transfer a water sample taken from a high T/P autoclave reactor. Photo by David Stephens, Bureau of Economic Geology.


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