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We Don’t Need No Stink’n Budget January 7, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science.
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Every year the US congress passes a budget. It is a lot of work, and definitely has lots of problems (can you say “pork”?). But not for 2007. The last congress managed to get homeland security and defense through, but didn’t get to the rest of the government. Science, for example (the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science).

What does that mean for 2007? I suppose it could be worse: we could have no budget at all. Instead, however, we have a so-called continuing resolution. This means we live 2007 with exactly the same budget at 2006. This translates to a 3-4% loss dues to inflation: our budgets don’t get a cost-of-living increase.

3-4% doesn’t sound like much. Especially on a budget of 5 billion (about the size of the NSF’s budget). But that translates to 150 million. What can you do with that? You can fund, for a year, more than 150 groups the size of our UW particle physics group. That is 4 professors, 1 research professor, 4+ graduate students, and 2 post-docs. And provide them with travel and equipment funds. That is a lot of people and a lot of research!

Continuing resolutions aren’t new. We have them almost every year: it is rare that congress finishes everything on time. The difference is the new congress has said they aren’t going to clean up the budget mess left by the last congress. This means continuing resolutions for all of 2007 for those of us who depend on government funding to do our work. Ouch!

We had an email from the Fermilab director a few days ago describing what might happen if this situation doesn’t change. The New York Times picked up the story from a more global perspective “Congressional Budget Delay Stymies Scientific Research” and wrote

“The consequences for American science will be disastrous,” said Michael S. Lubell, a senior official of the American Physical Society, the world’s largest group of physicists. “The message to young scientists and industry leaders, alike, will be, ‘Look outside the U.S. if you want to succeed.’

I’ve never seen such a bleak picture painted by the various lab directors: Fermilab would shut down for a month and lay off some number of its 4,200 employees, RHIC might be forced to close, and other labs will be forced to delay on-going (funded) projects by at least a year.

While all government funded research (with the possible exception of defense department research) is affected, I find this extra hard to swallow because:

For 2007, Congress and the Bush administration agreed that the federal budget for the physical sciences should get a major increase. A year ago, in his American Competitiveness Initiative, President Bush called for doubling the money for science over a decade. That prompted schools and federal laboratories to prepare for long-deferred repairs and expansions, plans that appear now to be in jeopardy.

We, in the physical sciences, have watched enviously as the health research funding has doubled over the course of the last 10 years. The next 5 or 10 years were, we hoped, going to be our turn.

On one level I don’t blame this congress for wanting to avoid this. They want to move on to new an exciting things rather than fixing up the mess of old. Where is the glory in that? On the other hand, this reminds me our our trigger (no, seriously). We have to decide in realtime which bunch-crossings to collect data for. At the Tevatron, they occur 2.7 million times a second and we can only write out about 100 of them. However, almost all of the 2.7 million crossings are totally boring. So we construct high-speed electronics that makes a snap decision on each bunch crossing and keeps only 100 of them: We make an intelligent decision on what to cut.

These 3-4% budget cuts across the board are politically expedient, help with the national debt, and are dumb. The easy way out. At the very least, I hope congress doesn’t take the easy way out and not address some of the privacy, security, and presidential-power issues that were also mangled during the last 6 years.

Comments»

1. sister of physics brothers - January 8, 2007

No offense, but this is not a disaster. A disaster is Katrina or Darfur.

All of us have had to belt tighten and more than 3-4%.

Whether you agree with it or not, there is a war going on.
We have so many other priorities and I think that science has gotten too far from everyday life of people into some very strange details that no one can relate to.

People understand and see the devastation of cancer and Parkinson’s.
Health groups have had effective PR campaigns going on to raise awareness through funds from corporations, etc.

Time to make alliances with corporations to start telling Americans why we need science.

2. Aaron F. - January 9, 2007

I’ve never seen such a bleak picture painted by the various lab directors: Fermilab would shut down for a month and lay off some number of its 4,200 employees, RHIC might be forced to close, and other labs will be forced to delay on-going (funded) projects by at least a year.

Wow… I can’t believe such a small budget decrease would have such huge effects. At first glance, it seems like a 4% budget increase should lead to a 4% decrease in science: Fermilab would effectively shut down for two weeks. Why is the real dependence so non-linear?

3. gordonwatts - January 11, 2007

Hi Aaron — I’m not sure how that works. I do know there are large fixed costs (you should see Fermilab’s power contract) and that amplifies the effect of the 4%. Also there is some judgement that goes into those numbers. For example, if you really wanted to get the ILC here in the USA rather than have it in another country then you might not want to delay the start of some of your ILC research programs (we are compeating with other countries, after all). This is a new program that was expected to be funded, but because of the resolution won’t be. So you allocate those funds, but they have to come from somewhere –> makes the 4% worse than it might be.

sister — I’ll try to answer yours in a seperate post because it is something we often hear.

4. Brief Thoughts & Link Dump « Tales from the learning curve - January 15, 2007

[…] labs do to the continuing resolution passed by congress with respect to the budget for FY07 and the physics community seems to have been hit particularly hard. The letter from the director of the multidisciplinary lab […]


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