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

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