Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Science Federalism

In Glenn McGee's newest column in The Scientist he discusses the "State of Science Funding" (excerpt from the column available for free on the AJoB blog, full column requires a login). McGee notes that, increasingly, scientific funding and policy decisions are migrating from Capitol Hill to statehouses nationwide, a process that he terms "science federalism."
As evidence McGee cites budget cuts at the NIH, the Senate's persistent opposition to all forms of stem cell research, and the rise of state programs designed to fund expansive new science initiatives:
So scientists and Congressional constituents are turning to the states. Citizens who kept their states from accepting others' trash in their landfill once chanted, "not in my backyard." In 2004, dissatisfied with national policy about stem cell research, Californians marched on Sacramento to ask the cash-strapped state for $3 billion for stem cell research.

More importantly, some states are debating large programs to fund innovative science in general. For example, New York's more than half-billion dollar investment in nanotechnology transformed the state overnight into a competitor not only with other states but also with the US government itself. Michigan put tens of millions of dollars from the proceeds of tobacco lawsuits into giant glass temples of science that rise above Ann Arbor, like new casinos in Nevada. Even tiny Rhode Island is building a fund to attract and retain scientists from a variety of disciplines.

Is science federalism a fad, or has McGee identified a real trend in the future of science funding and policymaking in this country? The answer will depend in large part on the success of these state-sponsored science initiatives. Procuring funds is, after all, only the first step. Despite a federal funding ban for new embryonic stem cell lines, the federal government provides tens of million of dollars annually for embryonic stem cell research (using ESC lines created before the ban went into effect). California, on the other hand, "has yet to award a dime of its $3 billion stem cell initiative."

Irregardless of the ultimate outcome of these state-sponsored initiatives their very presence makes it clear that, at least in certain parts of this country, citizens are increasingly unwilling to permit the federal government to act as the final arbiter on questions of science funding and policy. Which begs the following question: As emerging scientific technologies infiltrate the lives of individuals in increasingly obvious and intimate ways will we, as individuals, cede control over science funding and policy decisions to national (or even international) political institutions, however they are constituted, or is this becoming a truly local issue?


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