Underfunded research

Since 2000, scientists have been working to identify every species occurring in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Just down the road from Dollywood, the researchers and volunteers have cataloged 12,000 species, 651 of them unknown to science. They expect to find 100,000 species in the park.

This week's Ask a ScienceBlogger:

What's the most underfunded scientific field that shouldn't be underfunded?

Like John Wilkins, I can't ignore the importance of research in systematics and biodiversity (a field once referred to as taxonomy).

The best estimates we have suggest that there are about 15 million species, although reasonable estimates go as much as 10 times that. These are estimates based on rates of new discoveries, and on intensive surveys of small areas – as small as a sample of beetles from a few trees. For most of these named species, the name is all we know about most of them. For mammals, we have a skull in a drawer, and hopefully a dried skin next to it. For insects it could be a single specimen on a pin.

We have names for only a tenth of what's out there, and we know something about the behavior and habits of perhaps a tenth of that.

This would all be an interesting, but not urgent, if that undescribed diversity weren't disappearing. The areas that have the most undescribed diversity are the ones that are often in the greatest danger. Projects like the All Species Inventory and the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventories are starts, but there needs to be funding to sustain the experts and to maintain the collections they rely on. Many of the museums at smaller universities are being closed to save costs, and the collections are being pared down and integrated into fewer and fewer large collections. That robs students of opportunities to learn about systematics hands on, and it means that there are fewer schools where trained systematists can work.


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sounds like more of my tax dollars being mispent. like the space program they keep sending up people into space to study ants and bugs and i cant even get my city to put new sewer in.

money needs to be spent at home and to defend our country not on worthless projects to count how many bugs live in a tree in a forest.

Finding out what is in the world around us, and how our bodies work, is not a waste.

We spend vastly more on an occupation of Iraq that has no clear mission and brings no one any benefit. We spend stupendous amounts of money on Cold War weapons systems, systems useless in the asymmetric warfare we face in Iraq and Afghanistan. We waste money on abstinence-only sex-ed that just makes kids more likely to have anal and oral sex. That's wasteful.

Finding out new things about the world is never a waste. Without that desire, we'd all be sicker, uglier, and dumber.

actually josh youre probably right. stuff like medical science has saved a lot of people. but im thinking the free market should decide what is important to dump money into not goverment. while the goverment is busy counting how many chiggers live in a swamp or flying a plane into space for rich people with my tax money, private business is researching ways to make us live longer.

i just disagree with liberals thinking the goverment should spend more and more on everything. yes the war is expensive but we have to defend ourself.

one more thing. my dad said that when he worked for the loggers they already had scientists working there. they were doing things like counting animals and studying things. he said they didnt share the info with outsiders only because they kept getting backstabbed by people with agendas using the info to keep them from logging because some spotted owl might be living there.

one more thing. my dad said that when he worked for the loggers they already had scientists working there. they were doing things like counting animals and studying things. he said they didnt share the info with outsiders only because they kept getting backstabbed by people with agendas using the info to keep them from logging because some spotted owl might be living there.

Actually, the space plane is a matter of private industry. Government funding produced useless crap like the computer industry and the internet. Not to mention the discovery of cancer medicines like taxol, and the PCR technology that is vital to every part of modern molecular biology, as well as crime fighting DNA tests (another enterprise best handled by government).

Every now and then it's also worth pointing out that residents of urban states like New York pay more in taxes than they get back. Kansas gets more federal funding than it contributes. The Kansas agricultural industry survives because of government spending, as does Boeing. Your anarcho-capitalist utopia would leave urban America unharmed, but would ruin Kansas.

josh, i was talking about the plane that nasa uses that occasionally blows up. the one that they use to send up millionaires.

you can give me examples where goverment money ended up in good places and did good things the fact is that most of it is wasted and my hard earned tax dollars are lost when i could keep them here where it really matters to me.

and i dont know how to argue against what you said about places like new york paying more in taxes but that only makes sense because they have more people. i think it can be said that we pay in other ways like producing the food new yorkers eat and also our young men who go off to defend our country. you dont see new yorkers signing up to go to war but kansans do it all the time.

Merle, you are either referring to Spaceship 1, a privately funded space plane, or you are thinking of the Russian space tourism program. The American astronauts who risk their lives traveling into space earn 60,000-100,000 a year. Hardly millionaire pay.

Why is it that more people ought to be paying in more? Why shouldn't more people cost more? Even better, why shouldn't it cost the same? Why should urban areas subsidize the Kansas economy through taxes, rather than by letting the market take care of it?

The answer is, if we let food prices be set by the markets without subsidies, food might not cost more, but we'd be buying a lot more of it from other countries. Food costs wouldn't fluctuate much over-all, but American farmers would suffer. So government policy ensures that urban America gives handouts to rural America.

And I'm OK with that. I just wish people remembered who funds whom.

Also, I'd like it remembered who dies for whom. 132 New Yorkers have died in Iraq, compared to 32 Kansans. Let's just agree that we are all patriots.