In Defense of Non-Defense

A paddler enjoys Silver Springs State Park in Marion County, FL, on a wintry day. Photo: C. Peterson.

Caity Peterson
by Caity Peterson



Read the original op-ed in the Ocala Star Banner

In her classic Central Florida book, “Cross Creek,” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is delighted one day to accept an invitation to a “pound party” at the Thompsons. But upon her arrival, Marjorie finds that instead of each neighbor bringing a pound of this and a pound of that to contribute to the festivities, she is the sole guest and the sole profferer of a large and sticky cake to be divided among herself and the hungry Thompson brood. The invitation was a trick, albeit a harmless one, invoking the gullibility of a newcomer to the Creek.

Like a pound party, governments work better when everybody chips in.

Our elected representatives will soon vote on the federal budget for fiscal year 2018, and the non-defense funding that supports these entities is on the chopping block. More than $54 billion of it, to be exact, with deeper cuts to follow in coming years.

Defense funding is important and keeps us safe. It is as important as Marjorie’s cake was to the Thompsons. However, non-defense funding for things such as science and education is just as important, and the party is simply not as good without it.

Growing up on my family’s Ocala farm, I spent my play time cramming the pages of a wide-ruled notebook with sketches of sticks, pressed flower specimens and detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of our little oak hammock. What was once play is now my job. I am in the process of becoming a real scientist, though now I study agriculture and the interactions among soil, plants, water and the atmosphere that make growing food possible. My paycheck comes from a (federal) National Science Foundation program for graduate students in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, fields.

I am very aware that my budding career has been made possible by federal non-defense spending, and I am supremely grateful for it. Indeed, government funds often represent the bulk of universities’ research budgets, and the returns to the local economy from this spending go well beyond the financing of individual researchers such as myself.

Our own next-door neighbor, the University of Florida, reported some $451 million of research funding from federal sources in the past fiscal year, principally from the National Institutes for Health, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. UF claims that, in return, private companies licensing products from UF-developed technologies funneled nearly $2.3 billion into the Florida economy. Add that to the avoidance of losses from pests and diseases in tomatoes, avocados, citrus and other important crops in our agricultural sector thanks to agrichemical manufacturing and advancements in pathology and entomology research, as well as the significant contributions to public health from UF medical research facilities, and you have quite a return on investment.

Development of future STEM professionals does not fund itself. Nor do local law enforcement improvements, infrastructure support, anti-poverty measures, national parks and recreation areas, or emergency response to wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters to which our Central Florida home is prone.

I think we can agree that these investments make our community more vibrant, successful, safe and enjoyable — a worthy objective for our contributions to the government pound party.

Every time I think of the fact that the little girl who was fascinated by the flowers and mosses in her back yard was lucky enough to grow up to be a scientist, I am grateful for federal non-defense spending. Every time I remember adventuring in the Ocala National Forest, or swimming in the crystalline waters of Juniper Springs, I am grateful for federal non-defense spending. I am sure that the many Ocalans who enjoy fishing, hunting, riding ATVs, hiking and camping in our beautiful forest feel the same way.

This month, our congressmen will make decisive votes on the federal budget, including non-defense spending, for the coming year. Let’s make sure Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and Reps. Ted Yoho and Daniel Webster hear from Ocalans that these are important investments that lay the foundations for a healthier, more prosperous America today and long into the future.