Two recent articles in the NYT and the journal Science suggest that our current budget gridlock will cause major problems for science, including one of the President’s better policy proposals. Announced during his 2006 State of the Union address, the American Competitiveness Initiative proposed to double the American spending on the physical sciences over the next 10 years. The ACI also proposed about $300 million for educational initiatives which garnered mixed reviews (judgments roughly tracked people’s opinions of NCLB), but the investment in physical sciences was long overdue.
You won’t hear a life scientist, me for example, say that the life sciences are overfunded (check the Science link if you want to hear someone else saying it, or at least implying it). On an emotional level it’s hard to argue with research that makes people live longer, cures a disease or makes a strawberry glow in the dark. Compared with the guys promoting massive particle-smashing installations whose purpose even many of us with advanced degrees only partially understand, our lobbyists just have an easier time of it. It is also a shame that even a crucial physical science projects like fusion energy often takes a huge investment and a very long development time before it changes the world. That’s a long horizon for the political process to support. Given how badly we need progress in energy and materials science, that is a problem and I’m glad the President moved to rectify it.
The President’s 2007 budget request included funds for the ACI proposal. Relevant agencies – NSF, DOE, NIST and NASA – made plans accordingly, which became a problem when the 109th Congress spiked 9 out of 11 necessary budget bills before it adjourned in December.
Like a retreating army, Republicans are tearing up railroad track and planting legislative land mines to make it harder for Democrats to govern when they take power in Congress next month.
Already, the Republican leadership has moved to saddle the new Democratic majority with responsibility for resolving $463 billion in spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
And the departing chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas (R., Calif.), has been demanding that the Democrat-crafted 2008 budget absorb most of the $13 billion in costs incurred from a decision now to protect physician reimbursements under Medicare, the federal health-care program for the elderly and disabled.[…] “There are individuals who want to blow up the tracks, and there are more of those individuals in the House,” said one Senate leadership aide.
The GOP’s bitter move stalls more than the President’s ACI plan. Stopgap bills held government budgets to 2006 levels, which amounts to a 3 to 4% cut after inflation. Unfortunately the details of research funding can make small funding cuts more painful than they sound. Not counting one-time ‘startup’ grants like the R03, funding cuts disproportionately shut young researchers out of the process since they lack the ‘pull’ of their more senior competition. A weak couple of years for funding is that much time when the most promising young talent leaves research and finds work somewhere else. Another disproportionate victim is collaborative projects which depend on precisely aligning the schedules of X number of very busy people. Both articles give several examples of those, including the Fermilab collider in Illinois and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven in New York.
Now, science won’t grind to a halt because research budgets aren’t increasing. Many of the setbacks will come from ACI-related proposals that are still only in the plannnig stage, which is annoying but not fatal. Other cuts might actually hurt. From the NYT:
Missions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are also threatened, with $100 million in cuts. Paul Hertz, the chief scientist at NASA’s science mission directorate, said potential victims included programs to explore Mars, astrophysics and space weather
Right now NASA does some extremely cool things, for example robotic exploration of our neighbor planets. NASA also does some extremely useful things like understanding climate change through careful observation of the Earth. Unfortunately there is a third category, massive vanity projects that won’t happen and already suck resources from the useful missions. Hertz could mean that the budget shortfall will cut back the third kind of mission, which would be cool. Boots on Mars will not add any mission capabilities that robots can’t or won’t soon be able to do. But I suspect that Hertz is really talking about the former kind of Mars mission, which when you think that one of our robots just found evidence for running water near the surface of Mars strikes me as a small tragedy.
On a semi-related note, the Iraq war costs America roughly $
600,000 6,000,000 per hour. FYI.