Public Funding for the Public Good

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has produced several reports critical of government spending decisions. His latest focused specifically on research projects.

In his recently released “oversight” report criticizing federal funding for scientific research, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, highlighted 20 studies that he found “trivial, unnecessary, or duplicative.” We conducted some of the research he criticized, and we believe it provides valuable insights that could lead to interventions that improve and perhaps even save lives. In other words, it is exactly the type of federally funded research Senator Flake is calling for – that which could “yield profound and transformative results.”

Our research that Senator Flake chose to target involved children, monkeys and chimpanzees and used game-like mazes to assess memory and planning abilities. Most of us can identify with writing an email that references an attachment and then hitting “SEND” without attaching the file. Embarrassing, no doubt, but not life threatening. However, many of us also have elderly relatives or friends who struggle to remember to take medicines, or who take medicines twice because they cannot recall whether they already took them. And each summer, we read tragic stories of parents who have left small children in sweltering cars because they forgot to drop them off at school or daycare. These memory failures are much more dangerous. How can this happen?

These occurrences rely on what cognitive psychologists call prospective memory, which is remembering what we need to do later. These intentions are future-oriented, and they rely on the need to make a plan and then stick with it when it’s time to put the plan in motion. Our study used mazes precisely because they allow us to look at the ability to plan moves ahead. This ability emerges slowly in children, and in adults it is not universally evident in all situations – some people are better at it than others.

And why study monkeys and chimpanzees? Historically, studies of other animals have provided useful scientific data on the types of cognitive abilities that are deemed essential for normal human health. These abilities include attention, memory, and planning for and solving spatial problems. It is important to know whether prospective memory and planning are reliant on language and are uniquely human capacities. Thus, we need to see what other animals can and cannot do, and to compare those results with human abilities. For example, we have found that chimpanzees can perform as well as young, verbal children in some of these games, indicating that language is not necessary for planning and executing future responses. This finding has significant implications for treating people with severe autism, language deficits and other developmental delays.

This leaves Senator Flake’s question of cost. We wholeheartedly agree with him that accountability is an important goal when it comes to allocating and tracking government spending. However, his report cherry-picks and superficially summarizes individual experiments from much larger programs of research. It misleads the reader by appending to those single experiments the amount of federal grant support given for the much larger programs of research that included these singular experiments (a point he acknowledged in this report). He noted that it is not always easy to see exactly how grant funding is spent, but we are happy to discuss how we spend federal grant dollars. He need merely ask.

We were gratified to see that Senator Flake was open-minded enough to attend an event on Capitol Hill in April featuring scientists whose research had been deemed wasteful federal spending by the senator himself, as well as other members of Congress. Nine scientists, including three psychologists, displayed posters to explain their research to a lay audience and spoke with the crowd of about 150 policymakers and advocates.

We take seriously the trust that is placed in us by federal grant-making agencies and the public at large. We became scientists because we believe in the power of research to improve people’s lives and benefit society. We are grateful for the funding that makes this work possible. But we also firmly believe that it is a necessary commitment by this nation to continue to invest in all areas of science and recognize that applied and basic approaches to science form the cornerstone of bettering the lives of all Americans.

Michael J. Beran and Charles R. Menzel

Michael J. Beran is an associate professor in the department of psychology at Georgia State University and the associate director of the Language Research Center as Georgia State. Charles R. Menzel PhD, is a senior research scientist at the Language Research Center.

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