The Last Days Of The American Empire…Soft Power Edition

I’m working on an column about, among other things, the arc of federal support for science since World War II.  As I was trying not to think about our national emergency national emergency this morning, I tripped over the following thought…

The funding deal Pelosi, McConnell et al. worked out included $1.375 billion for new barrier construction along the border (not, technically, a or the wall). That’s a win for the Democrats and a defeat for Trump, as it’s a tiny fraction of the amount that the bigot-in-chief sought, and that would be necessary to truly fortify the frontier.  For what follows I’m going to ignore the faux emergency through which the would-be dictator seeks to seize other money to pay for some useless shit, and just look at that number.

So, what makes for a powerful country?  I’d argue that the ability to project force around the world is in many  ways the least significant part of it.  Certainly, in a globally connected world, with the full range of surveillance technology and so forth, the notion of using technology perfected by, say, 1400 or so, overlapping fortifications, to keep folks out is…

Shit stupid.

US power since the middle of the last century has certainly been headlined by the military; but our capacity to influence life at home and abroad on a daily basis, in the hour-by-hour experience of billions, has turned on everything else, from our cultural impact (jeans! Rock and roll!) to, crucially and perhaps most significantly, the scientific, medical and technological revolutions fostered by the American research community.

That’s what got me going about even the seemingly de minimus amount of barrier funding in the spending bill.

The NIH budget for 2019 is $39.3 billion. In constant dollars, that’s nine percent below the peak funding achieved in 2003.  About 80% of that money goes to research grants — so just shy of $32 billion pays for folks to address all the ills that befall Americans, and citizens of the world.  For FY 2018 the National Science Foundation received $6.334 billion for research related activities.* *There are, of course, other significant pots of research money in the federal budget — DoD, DoE and Commerce all fund a lot.  But the NSF is where curiosity-driven basic research gets its support, and the NIH is, of course, the one that as we all age we notice a lot, so that’s where I’m focusing this exercise in futile rage.

A first, obvious point. The money spent on the barrier would add more than twenty percent to recent NSF research budgets, and would represent a four percent boost to the NIH.

Within those numbers these factoids: the average research project grant at NIH in 2017 provided a skosh over $500,000 to award winners. The NSF funds such a wide range of projects and disciplines that the figures are a little opaque, but still, as of 2016, the average grant offered an annualized $177,100, while the median figure was $140,900 per year.

You can see where this is going.  That barrier money could fund almost 2,800 more principal investigators trying to figure out cancer, Alzheimers, antiobiotic resistance and all the rest.  It could pay for more than 12,000 researchers pursuing basic science — the kinds of questions with pay offs that can’t be anticipated, but that have, over the last century, utterly transformed the way humans live on earth.

FTR: I do know that budgets don’t work as sort of implied above. They’re political documents, so spending on foolish stuff is often the price to be paid to spend some on smart ideas.  If we somehow avoid pouring a billion plus into  holes in the ground along the Rio Grande, that money doesn’t readily flow to a lab.  But the exercise is worth doing anyway, if only to point out how little, in budget terms, it would take to turbo charge research in this country.

The reasons for doing so extend beyond the value of knowledge for its own sake, of course, there’s the economic benefits of scientific research. There is an open argument about the size of the multiplier for each dollar invested in basic research, though less controversy about the benefits of investing in more translational or directly motivated work of the sort that shows up in many/most NIH proposals, for example. But the bottom line is that trying to figure out how nature works is good for the national (and global) bottom line.

Instead, we’re buying bollards.

And that’s how the American century ends.

Not with a catastrophic collapse, but the decision to put our national treasure to work in dumbest possible fashion, leaving aspiration, well being and wealth on the table.

With that — I’m done, and you’re up. Open thread.

*There are, of course, other significant pots of research money in the federal budget — DoD, DoE and Commerce all fund a lot.  But the NSF is where curiosity-driven basic research gets its support, and the NIH is, of course, the one that as we all age we notice a lot, so that’s where I’m focusing this exercise in futile rage.

Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Ramparts of Paris1887

22 replies
  1. 1

    Here’s an interview with Trump’s science advisor, who has been in hiding for the two years since he was appointed.

  2. 2

    Now, Tom, I truly enjoy your perspectives, but let’s not sell the current CiC short on this. Let’s look at the success of a handful of other “walls” – off the top of my head.
    Jerico – Well, blow me down!
    Maginot Line – Oh, let’s go around it
    Atlantic Wall – Oh, let’s go through it
    Siegfried Line – See above

    A fine list of predicates for trump wall… ;)

  3. 3
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Thanks. That’s useful, if depressing, reading.

  4. 4
    scav says:

    who needs new ideas when we’ve got medieval technology that works great? Wall! Wheels! The secret is to bang those rocks together, guys.

  5. 5
    Seanly says:

    Well, yeah, this focus on the border (not just The Wall) is stupid, short-sighted, and ultimately a useless waste of funds.
    The march of demographic changes won’t be stopped by a wall on the southern border or even if we ended all legal and illegal right this very minute. The changing demographics (including the increasing economic power of minorities) started long, long ago. These changes were and are inevitable. While I admit that change can be scary for us white dudes, it is on the balance a much, much more positive thing.

  6. 6
    Ryan says:

    “There is an open argument about the size of the multiplier for each dollar invested in basic research”

    However, there is no argument about the size of the multiplier for each dollar invested in the top 1% by the Trump tax cuts (because we’re near the asymptote), which for my money is an even worse use of money than employing people to dig holes in the desert.

  7. 7
    AThornton says:

    According to Pew Research 66% of Americans reject the Theory of Evolution. In practical terms that means 66% of American are scientifically illiterate. Worse roughly 33%, according to Pew, think “GOD DONE IT!!!!!!!!!!! is an adequate explanation of the Universe.

    You’re not going to convince ignoramuses to spend money on basic research when (a) they have no idea what science is and (b) reject the very concept of science unless you scare the shit out of them a la Sputnik.

  8. 8
    prostratedragon says:

    And the youth of the world are beginning to insist we look to what we are handing over to them, even as the will to address the issue seems inversely proportional to the power to do so.

    For evening reflections, some kids and a few of their mentors give a premonition of that last wave to several heads of state.

  9. 9
    Kent says:

    @Kenneth Kohl:

    Now, Tom, I truly enjoy your perspectives, but let’s not sell the current CiC short on this. Let’s look at the success of a handful of other “walls” – off the top of my head.
    Jerico – Well, blow me down!
    Maginot Line – Oh, let’s go around it
    Atlantic Wall – Oh, let’s go through it
    Siegfried Line – See above

    A fine list of predicates for trump wall… ;)

    Ancient Troy
    Rome’s Aurelian walls
    Hadrian’s Wall
    Constantinople’s Theodosian Walls

    In point of fact, there has never been a famous wall that has not ultimately been defeated. At least not one with opposition on the other side.

  10. 10
    Ruff the Dog says:

    Wall Drug still stands.

  11. 11
    J R in WV says:

    A guy who I learned was a Trumper told me the Great Wall of China lasted for 2000 years a couple of weeks ago. Yes, it still stands in places, but IT DID NOT KEEP THE MONGOLS OUT!!!!!

    They went over and around the Great Wall and destroyed the great current dynasty ruling China, and became the new ruling dynasty of China. The wall worked briefly, and then did not.

  12. 12
    Driveby Poster says:

    Of course what could really help the US in science is another Tax Cut for the rich? Am I right?

  13. 13
    StringOnAStick says:

    The constant freakout about China beating us is research COULD BE EASILY REMEDIED BY FUNDING OUR RESEARCH INSTITUTIONS! JFC, we are a stupid people, coasting on our past glories.

  14. 14
    jonas says:

    Well, according to Trump’s propaganda boosters, most of the disease we currently suffer from in the US is apparently transmitted by illegals sneaking over the southern border.

  15. 15
    JR says:

    Strongly contemplating walking out on this particular NIH-funded endeavor so that’s something

  16. 16
    cliosfanboy says:

    @Kent: Wall-e was really good though, so there’s that…

  17. 17
    john fremont says:

    @Kent: Heck, you don’t have to go that far back, the McNamara Line at the Vietnam DMZ still required constant patrolling by US forces during the war despite all of the state of the art sensors and surveillance technology. The NVA still evaded detection. A wall on the southwest will still be gotten around by the smugglers if there is enough money to be had

  18. 18
    john fremont says:

    @Driveby Poster: Of course, because they’re rich which means they’re the smartest people in America! And you can take that to the bank!

  19. 19
    Amir Khalid says:

    (jeans! Rock and roll!)

    Jeans made for American brands in Vietnam. Rock and roll played by The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

  20. 20
    Sandia Blanca says:

    @scav: OMG, thank you for the Douglas Adams shout-out! Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent would never believe what this world has become.

  21. 21
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Amir Khalid: BTO? Shame on you.

  22. 22
    Ruckus says:

    dumbest possible fashion

    What else would you expect from the dumbest possible president and the party he represents?
    This maladministration is stupidity weaponized and is making money a symbol of that rather than a tool to fix it.

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