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Under Attack March 23, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in DOE, university, University of Washington.
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I’ve been trying not to make a comment on the budget situation in the USA. Or on the current discussion about teacher pay and benefits. Or about the state of science funding in this budget atmosphere. Or the drive to eliminate the Department of Education. Or the revival of the teach the controversy push. Others have made the case much more eloquently than I could have. This is more of a personal take on some of this: I’ve never felt under attack quite the way I do right now.

There seems to be a concerted attack on science funding in the US at the federal level. The feds fund most research that is too long term for a company to fund – which is becoming more and more as the stock market forces companies to think more and more short term. A healthy research program in a country needs to contain a balance for the sake of the long-term health of the economy. And a healthy economy is the only way to make jobs. The large cuts that are reputed to befall the Office of Science, which funds most of the national labs, will force lab closures. Facilities where we do science – gone! 1000’s of people layed off. Heck, if you are trying to cut out 60 billion you can take a guess as to how many jobs that is worth. At $100,000 per person per year – so really nice jobs! – that is another .6 million added to the unemployment roles. Right. That’s going to turn out well!

Second is this constant discussion about teacher pay. I’ve seen comments on newspaper articles with statements like “we are just paying them to babysit our kids.” Seriously?? Maybe we should just eliminate the schools and have the kids all at home. No formalized education system. Now, that has never been done before! And so obviously it must be better! Oh… wait. I guess it has been done before. I think it was called the middle ages… Arrgh! Yes, our K-12 system needs some real work. But beating the crap out of teachers in newspapers is not the way to get good people into the classroom! And the idea that teachers are overpaid paid? Seriously? [I’m not trying to channel Grey’s Anatomy here] I find that hard to believe. Perhaps they are getting better retirement plans for what they are paid – but I suspect that is because when the unions couldn’t negotiate a pay raise – so they went for an increase in the pension. I wonder if you paid teachers a more fair wage, but kept their pension plans the same size, if the rate would be more in line with normal?

On a more local note, one of our state legislators was heard to say “Higher education is a luxury we no longer can afford.” I don’t even know where to start with that. Washington is like every other state, it has some rich people and some poor people. UW is a state school – the state provides subsidies for the in-state students to make it more affordable. A robust state and federal scholarship program back fill for people really in need. The idea is if you are good and you want to get a higher level education, the federal government, the state government, and the university will do its best to make sure that finances do not get in your way. This has been a bedrock of all higher education in the USA for many years now. Do we go back to a class based system? What are people thinking, really? I get they are trying to cut the budget, but think for a few minutes about the implications of what you are saying!

And to those who say education is radically more expensive than it has been in the past – at the UW that is definitely true that the cost an instate student pays has gone up a lot over the last 10-15 years. Definitely more than inflation(by a bit). But if you look at the amount of $$ the university pays to educate a single student that has remained almost constant. Wait. For. It… That is right! State support has dropped dramatically. So the university has to cut expenses and find other sources of income – i.e. raise tuition. Blaming the university for this is misplaced. Last year in the state of Washington after the state legislature cut the UW funding by 26% the university raised tuition by 14% over two years. Legislatures were known to stand up at town halls, etc., and express their displeasure at UW for doing that in hard economic times. I’m happy with them being displeased – I was displeased – but at least be honest and say that the state cut 26% of the university’s funding. It isn’t like that was a capricious raise!

Next is another is the push to increase the teaching load. I currently teach one class a quarter – so three a year (I get paid for only the 9 months that I’m teaching – I have to find my own funding for the rest of the year). That one class is about 3 hours in the class room in front of students. Pretty cushy, eh!? I taught graduate particle physics this year. This is my third year so I’d like to think that I know it by now (not) – but all told during the week it would take about 20 hours of my time. The first time I taught it – when I had to teach myself some field theory – it was taking more like 50 hours a week. When I teach the easier undergraduate courses I tend to have 100’s of students – so it also works out to be about 20 hours a week. Some weeks a lot less, some a lot more. So, it would seem I have at least enough time to take on another course! Except there is one big problem here – my job isn’t just to teach undergraduates. My job is to also teach graduate students, mentor post-docs, and do research. UW is the #1 public institution in the USA when it comes to bringing in $$ from grants. You add another class, then you will effectively change the nature of the University of Washington – make it a teaching institution rather than a research institution. The ramifications of something like that are huge – rankings, desirability, research & undergrads, etc. Do people to say things like this understand how all this is connected?

This last election brought in a lot of new people (at least at the federal level). I remember being elected to a few positions having to do with HEP. I had all sorts of ideas – but I discovered that when I arrived that all the decisions that had been made were all made for a reason! They weren’t arbitrary. You can’t go wrecking around like a bull in a china shop – you have to carefully consider what you are doing and the ramifications. I get the feeling many of these new folks just don’t care. Really just don’t care. Even worse, they don’t know history – which means they are doomed to repeat it. Many of the ideas on the table around America have been tried before – if not here, then other places. I would love them to take a careful look. There is plenty of room for new things to achieve some of the same goals – why not try them rather than closing your eyes and just letting the knife fall where it may? In physics we call this a “prescale” – we just randomly through out data because we have too much. Here we are randomly throwing out programs because we have too little. In both cases this is an implicit admission of defeat: we aren’t smart enough to make a strategic cut.

Ok. Enough. Thank goodness there is a counter balance in most cases to these drives to change things so radically. It won’t be pleasant, but the system is too large and what comes out of it too valuable to actually destroy it in a few short years, despite best efforts of some. Now that I’ve vented, back to working on my classes and my research!

Update: Fixed “under paid” –> “over paid”. Of all the typo’s! Smile

We’re Broke… or not… where is the data!? January 26, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in DOE, NSF, science, University of Washington, USA.
6 comments

It is hard for me not to feel very depressed about the way government funding is going in Washington. Especially all the “cuts” that keep being  mentioned. So I thought I’d spend an hour doing my best to understand what cuts are being talked about. Ha! Sheer fantasy!

Before I write more, I should point out that I very much have a dog in this race. Actually, perhaps a bit more than one dog. Funding for almost all my research activities comes via the National Science Foundation (NSF) – this is funded directly by congress. My ability to hire post-docs and graduate students, train them, do the physics – everything, is dependent on that stream of money. Also, two months of salary a year come from that stream. In short, almost everything except for the bulk of my pay. That comes from two sources: state of Washington and student’s tuition. A further chunk of money comes from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science – they fund the national labs where I do my research, for example. In short, particle physics does not exist without government funding.

So when people start talking about large, across-the-board cuts in funding levels I get quite nervous. Many republicans in 2010 campaigned on cutting back the budget, hard:

“We’re broke, and decisive action is needed to help our economy get back to creating jobs and end the spending binge in Washington that threatens our children’s future,” Mr. Boehner said.

Up until recently they really haven’t said how they were going to do it – a typical political ploy. But now things are starting to show up: cut funding to 2008 levels, and then no increases to counter inflation. The latter amounts to a 2-3% cut per year. No so bad for one year but when you hit 3-4 it starts to add up. You’ll have to let go a student or perhaps down-size a post-doc to a student.

But what about all these other cuts? So… I’m a scientist and I want to know: Where’s the data!? Well, as any of you who aren’t expert in the ways of Washington… boy is it hard to figure out what they really want to do. I suppose this is to their advantage. I did find out some numbers. For example, here is the NSF’s budget page. 2008 funding level was $6.065 billion. In 2010 it was funded at a rate of $6.9 billion. So dropping from 2010 back to 2008 would be a 12% cut. So, if that was cut blindly (which it can’t – there are big projects and small ones and some might be cut or protected), that would translate into the loss of about one post-doc, perhaps a bit more. In a group our size we would definitely notice that!

But is that data right? While I was searching the web I stumbled on this page, from the Heritage foundation, which seems to claim reducing the NSF to 2008 levels will save $1.7 billion, about x2 more than it looks like above. Who is right? I know I tend to believe the NSF’s web page is more reliable. But, seriously, is it even possible for a citizen who doesn’t want to spend days or weeks to gather enough real data to make an independently informed decision?

Check out this recent article from the NYTimes about a recent proposal coming from  Congressman Jordan whose goal is to reduce federal spending by $2.5 trillion through fiscal year 2021 (am I the only one that finds the wording of that title misleading?). As a science/data guy the first thing I want to know is: where is he getting all that savings from? There are lists of programs that are eliminated, frozen, or otherwise reduced – but that document contains no numbers at all. And I can’t find any supporting documentation that he and his staff must have in order of have made that $2.5 trillion claim. So, in that document, which is 80 pages long, I’m left scanning for the words “national science foundation”, “science”, “energy”, etc. Really, there is very little mentioned. But I have a very hard time believing that those programs are untouched – as the article in the new york times points out, since things like Medicare, Social Security, etc., are left untouched (the lions share of the budget – especially in out years), and so all the cuts must come from other programs:

As a result, its effect on the entire array of government programs, among them education, domestic security, transportation, law enforcement and medical research, would be nothing short of drastic.

I agree with that statement. 2.25 trillion is a lot of cash! Can you find the drastic lines in that document? Well, perhaps you know more about Washington. I can’t. This gets to me because now if I have to get into an argument it is a very abstract one.

Pipedream: What I would love these folks to do is release a giant spreadsheet of the US gov’t spending that had 2008, 2009, 2010 levels, and then their proposed cuts, with an extra column for extra text. That is a lot of data, and would probably be hard to compile. But, boy, it would be nice!

He Said That!? Niiice! Now, lets see where the rubber meets the road April 28, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in DOE, NSF, politics.
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I’m in Geneva right now, so imagine my surprise reading this when I arrived at CERN this morning:

In a speech on Monday at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, President Obama presented a vision of a new era in research financing comparable to the Sputnik-period space race, in which intensified scientific inquiry, and development of the intellectual capacity to pursue it, are a top national priority.

Doubling the NSF budget, large increases in DOE Office of Science, etc. Very nice. This sort of talk is music to my ears: I firmly believe that the only way to move forward is a combination of short term and long term research. Short term is very easy to argue for: improving the gas engine efficiency by 20%, etc. Long term is much harder to argue for – for example my research isn’t going to help cure cancer or otherwise develop some new product. But both are needed for science and a country to move forward (well, more than the country – the world). And the fact that a president showed up at the National Academy of Sciences. That hasn’t happened in a while!

But… yeah, there is always a but, isn’t there. We’ve heard this tune before. And congress has always removed it. There are definitely strong proponents of this in congress, but it always looses out to other things. So, I’m very happy to see this speech, and it definitely makes me feel much better about the science future in America, but I’m going to be a bit skeptical for a while longer. On the other hand, if there is anything I can do to help make this happen, I’ll be happy to help!! :-)

Thank you, J-mo! January 19, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in DOE, NSF, politics.
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The Obama stimulus package is taking shape. From the point of view of science, it looks rather good:

  • Extra 3 billion for the NSF
  • Extra 2 billion for the DOE’s Office of Science
  • Funds to help states cover some education costs

The first two are a big boon to research grants – like the one that supports me and my students. The last won’t totally cover the 10% cut that UW is currently facing from state funds, but it will help!

The overall proposal is breath taking in size. The question is… who will pay for it in the end? My guess is the young folk… :-)

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