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It Isn’t a Disaster January 12, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science.

You guys are getting uppity and aren’t just believing everything I write. How dare you! Oh. Wait. This is Web 2.0 with user driven content. And I thought I was the user! Ha ha ha! No, seriously, I love the comments. Keep them coming.

A few days ago I talked about the potential effect of a continuing resolution that didn’t include, at the very least, inflation if not the normal funding level for science in the US budget. This was triggered by an article in the New York Times (sorry, I forgot to link to it before!) Sister of physics brothers responded. She had several points.

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

Yes. This is an impossible argument to win on the face of it, actually. Those are clearly humanitarian disasters and people are dying because of them. If you had to choose where to spend your dollars: fixing Darfur or funding a particle accelerator — you’d have trouble sleeping at night if you funded particle physics (well, I would). But I would like to point out this is a false choice. This is not the choice we have nor the one our government makes. The US budget is ginormous. Science funding is a drop in the overall size: a few billion. There are lots and lots of choices that are made. We, as a nation, need to decide what to spend our money on and what is important. Science is one of 100’s of choices. Where should it rank? Higher than it does now, I would say. Heck, if we could absorb pork and put it into funding for peer-reviewed science proposals from the NSF and the Office of Science that would, well, heck. I’m sure we could figure out how to spend all that cash. 🙂

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.

I’m happy to belt tighten 3-4%. But not every single year for the majority of the last 10 years when the US budget was increasing. Look back at that article. Funding for health sciences went from being on par with physical sciences to being more than x2 larger. That is fantastic. There is plenty of room in the budget for that to happen to physical sciences. The article puts physical science funding at 5 billion bucks. 5 billion! IN 2004 the total budget was 2318 billion — science funding is 0.2%!!! I’m tired of watching good proposals turned down because of this (N.B. I’m sure some of the numbers I’m quoting are off here and there; I am far from an expert in the size of the US budget, but the general size of the numbers is going to be born out – that 5 billion from the NYTimes article seems a bit low to me, but it comes from a fairly trustworthy source).

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.

I disagree with your thesis (Sister goes on to say, as you’ll see below, that we also have a PR problem which would change the tenor of this statement). I think everyone can relate to the chemical processes that surround chip building (chemistry), or understanding binding sites in Silicon lattices (condensed matter physics; chip development), or be as puzzled as we are at how the universe started or even what it is made up up. Heck, there could be 1000’s of dark matter particles streaming through you right now! But we don’t know; we’ve not completed the research. And we’ll never know if we cut the science budgets enough. Or maybe we will know; but it just won’t be America that participates in the discovery.

Perhaps part of the problem is that there is no direct effect. The pure research that is funded by the government doesn’t produce a product. We aren’t trying to develop something. Sure, we pour lots of money into the local economy. We often drive leading edge technology for our specialized equipment (that will then hopefully be cheap enough for someone to mass produce). Accelerators are just starting to appear in hospitals for cancer care. It was a long long time ago those things got invented as a tool to investigate fundamental science questions. When will the answers to those questions be used in a product? No idea. And that is part of the point: there are a bunch of questions that we have no idea what the answer will be — and we won’t know if they are useful at all until we know the answers. But we have to find out. So cutting the budgets does have an effect — it just takes a long time to be felt. By the same token if you doubled the budget today you wouldn’t expect new results that had direct impact on what people do the next year.

Finally, Sister says:

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.

That I agree with. We are not effective communicators. I think we are getting better, but we aren’t there yet. Corporations already do collaborate and fund research that is directly in line with their business needs. But pure research doesn’t align so well with corporations; we will always need government funding for that.

Whew. Long post. Sorry. I just get twisted in knots when talking about this. So, finally. I do call this a disaster. Is it one American science will never recover from? Heck no. Most of us (here in America) believe in science and doing science here that we aren’t all going to go overseas. But some will. We’ll loose them. And getting them back by increasing the funding next year will be harder than just keeping them here in the first place by making sure they are well funded. Another case of nickel-and-dime.



1. Dave Bacon - January 12, 2007

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.

That’s seems like a false dichotemy as well. First of all the three to four percent has more to do with the ineptitude of the previous House and Senate than the war. If the Congress had a boss they would have been fired right about the time they all ran home to campaign without having accomplish an iota of work. I also have little sympathy for the incoming leadership and their decision to not clean up the previous Congress’s ineptitudes. If you start a new job, sometimes you’ve got to suck it and clean up the mess your predecessor left.

Second the idea that because their is a war going on I have to support this war and the severe effect it is having on our nation’s budget seems to me to be based on very shakey moral grounds. At times when the vital interests of a nation, and then by association your very personal existence, are threatened, then I have no problem with this argument. But the case for this in the current war are shakey and best, and somewhere down the line towards scandelous at worse. In fact I would argue that the money being spent is actually killing more people than it is saving. Of course if you don’t see things this way, then what I’m saying will fall on deaf ears! But forgeting about the science budget for a second, can you imagine what the hundreds of billions of dollars currently being spent per year could do to helps solve real problems? Can you really justify the balance sheet between war in Iraq, and say, a real peace initiative in Darfur? I can’t.

Ack, sorry Gordon, seems this issues gets me all verbose as well.

2. Mike - January 12, 2007

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

I’m not sure to whom “all of us” refers – certainly there are some fields that are not hurting for funding, despite the war.

Without going into whether or not science deserves a smaller or larger buget (I am in HEP, and I have my doubts that my field is worth the funding we receive), to me this is not the primary concern. If the sciences need a budget cut, then people should come out and say that we need a budget cut. Playing this passive-aggressive game of “we didn’t really cut your budget, we just never got around to updating it,” seems somewhat juvenile.

It’s an interesting problem – there’s probably no other group of people more likely to understand and appreciate a rational argument for eliminating their field than scientists (even if they disagree in the end). Perhaps if politicians were more scientifically literate, they would understand that, and present such arguments instead of hiding from the issue. On the other hand, I’d like to think that if they were more scientifically literate, they’d find such arguments shortsighted and ultimately flawed.

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