The major subject areas in the sciences, distinguished by topical areas, funding sources, and to some extent research methods as well are:
- Physical Sciences
- Life Sciences
- Social Sciences
- Engineering and Applied Sciences
Science works by producing and testing theories that are provisionally accepted models or "useful fictions" that enable humans to predict how things in the real world will work. Science aims at the systematic elimination of error or falsehood, but can only offer the assurance that its currently standing theories "have yet to be disproved." Claims for science that promise more eventually provoke disappointment and cast the reliability of scientific findings into doubt.
These involve the experimental study of the non-living material world, from the very small scale (subatomic physics) to the very large (astronomy). Chemistry, while a large portion of it includes study of biologically relevant materials (most of organic chemistry), is always included among the physical sciences. Mathematics and Earth and Space Science are also usually included among the Physical Sciences.
In the United States, the primary sources of government funding for the physical sciences are the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) - part of the Department of Commerce, NASA, and the Defense Department.
In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a new American Competitiveness Initiative which doubles physical science research funding in NSF, DOE, and NIST over the next decade.
Life Sciences include Biology, Medicine, and related fields. The primary funding source in this area in the United States are the National Institutes of Health, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Basic biological research also receives some NSF funding.
These involve the study of human behavior and institutions, including Economics, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and the like. Funding in some areas of the social sciences also comes from the NIH, NSF and other research agencies.
Engineering and Applied Science
Engineering involves the application of scientific discoveries to areas of economic usefulness; every new idea has to go through an engineering phase to turn it into a practical product useful to the rest of society. A lot of NIH and DOD research money goes into development of scientific ideas for practical purposes, but the other research funding agencies typically avoid this step, leaving it to industrial research laboratories.
A long-standing but little-recognized political dispute between Republicans and Democrats in the United States is on this issue of funding for applied sciences, versus the basic science areas listed earlier. One of the tenets of the 1994 Republican platform was an attack on applied science funding as a waste of government money; targeted programs such as the Clinton Administration had initiated at the Department of Commerce were radically scaled back.
Public Perception of Science
There are many misconceptions about science that impede our country both in regard to public policy problems such as global warming and in regard to our declining competitive advantage on a global scale. Media reports on science favor over-confident pronouncements by "experts" who may in fact have little or no expertise; contradictory and mystifying reports of this sort lead to confusion and tuning out on important issues by the general public, despite widespread fascination with what science tells us about the natural world.
Scientific evidence is based in what the natural world tells us; part of the confusion in the public mind is the use of authority figures to convey what has been discovered. From the typical presentation it is easy to think the message of science is "Just believe it because I say so" when in truth what any authority says about science has no relevance at all if nature says otherwise.
As scientific knowledge grows, confidence by those familiar with many strands of evidence may become very strong - such is the case with the evidence now for human causation of global warming. But science at the forefront is always uncertain, waiting for the results of the next test. A scientific attitude is inherently one of humility. Science does not promise certainty, even though in cases that have been well researched and used over and over again in medicine, industry, etc., it can claim a high degree of reliability within the limits of these accumulated experiences. Conveying this mix of inherent uncertainty, humility, and yet confidence in particular areas is an enormous challenge for the ethical scientist, and simply glossed over in typical media reports.