July was an exhausting month for anyone paying attention to the current presidential election. Like many other Americans, I lived the weeks surrounding the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as a news addict trapped in a cycle of abuse — cramming nearly every spare weekday hour with analysis, op-eds, and internet commentary, crashing under a wave of hopelessness by Friday, and finally tuning out the world for the weekend to binge-watch fifteen episodes of HBO’s Veep as a sort of politics nicotine patch. Come Monday, the pattern would start anew. In my mind I was fulfilling a civic duty to stay informed, but the entire experience was pretty harrowing.
It didn’t take long for my politics habit to start impacting my day job. I zoned out while counting cells to listen to Terry Gross’s interview with the New York Time’s Amy Chozick about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. I pretended to be reading protein expression data from Nature when I was actually reading polling data from FiveThirtyEight. Most notably, there was a distinct shift in mental priorities. After spending half a decade in graduate school studying only science, this suddenly-consuming focus on the executive branch of the United States government felt like an unpleasant fugue state. Most people who are in research at any stage are there in part because of a belief that the world can be improved by the accumulation of objective truths, or at least our best approximation of truths based on scientific evidence. In that regard, politics, —which is in some ways the exact opposite of “objective”—would appear to have no seat at the science table. We have yet to figure out a way to quantify patriotism.
In reality, the present and future of science are inextricably tied to government, both in terms of funding resources and research policy. The NIH invests over 30 billion dollars in medical research each year, financing roughly 300,000 researchers in more than 2,500 institutions throughout the nation. The recently-approved budget for fiscal year 2017 would increase this amount by $825 million, a welcome change after a decade of funding that saw budget cuts in twelve of the past fourteen years. It’s no secret that money for research project grants has been historically tight, especially following extensive sequestration of funds mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The only way for the United States to remain a leader in science is if Americans elect officials that continue to prioritize spending in research.