Squandered

The first presidential debate of the United States general election between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump was held last night. This post is not meant to fact check, denigrate, or otherwise pick apart either candidate; it is focused on one single, throwaway line during a tense exchange. Secretary Clinton had accused Mr. Trump of not paying any taxes, which he claimed made him smart, and then he said this:

“It would have been squandered anyway.”

According to the man who would one day sign the Federal budget, tax money is squandered. With full understanding that taxes and the IRS are easy targets, that quip bothered me immensely as a scientist, as an awardee of Federal scientific grant funding, and as a citizen. One thing that is not often discussed is how frequently basic scientific research funded by Federal grants serves as the basis for startup companies and new products licensed by companies. How have your tax dollars been squandered? Allow me to count the ways:

  • Velcro

  • Microwave ovens

  • Vaccinations against polio, influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, rotavirus, meningitis, rabies, and others

  • Herceptin and other novel cancer drugs

  • The atomic bomb

  • The first novel antibiotic class discovered in 30 years

  • Field hospitals that helped to treat and contain the largest Ebola outbreak in history

  • If you are Canadian, the rapidly deployed vaccine that undoubtedly broke the back of that outbreak.

  • Vaccinations for agricultural diseases that have increased production and reduced costs, making food more affordable.

  • The Internet

  • About a zillion other things that make our everyday life better, easier, and healthier

Frankly, the perception of private industry as the sole driver of innovation is a bit incomplete (detailed beautifully here by Jeff Madrick). Private companies play a critical role in translating laboratory discoveries into safe and effective products; however, without discoveries to translate, there would be no products. The majority of those discoveries are made with government grants, and those come from tax dollars.

Squandered indeed.

[Note: This post is specific to the arena of science, technology, and healthcare. It does not reflect the similarly egregious disregard for members of the military, civil servants, the national highway system, veterans, Medicare-covered retirees, national parks, public works, public education, and countless other amenities that we as Americans enjoy]