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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.

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!



1. Gordon WAYNE Watts (aka FLASH Gordon! :-) - January 26, 2011

I’ll do my “PS” first…

PS: Besides doing my own thing on my 2 namesake websites, I make sure to mention (and link to) other people names ‘Gordon Watts’ –to help readers get where they want to go. (Link is at top of my pages.)

OK, anyhow, when noticing a Google alert for my name, I saw your blog entry here, and I wanted to weigh in on this subject -and see what you & others think:

I am big-time scientific myself –major league (Biological & Chemical Science double major with honours @ FSU and a 2-year vocational degree in electronics, where I tied with 2 others for valedictorian of my very small class) …

Therefore, it’s logical to conclude I support the sciences; however, I wonder at the methods used:

Notice, if you would, Dr. Watts, that in at *least* three (3) examples where you hvave government subsidy, this distorts the (free) market -in other words, when dishonest head-honchos know there’s a free gravy-train from Sugar-daddy UNCLE SAM, they charge *whatever* they want:

Example 1: Housing – Government insisted on backing loans for people who couldn’t pay, and housing prices then became unaffordable (and lots of defaults, & housing bust)

BETTER Example: #2 — Education: Used to be REAL cheap -kids could save up over the summer, but nowadays, even with declining American education standards, inflation-adjusted tuition is SKYROCKETING (and defaults on student loans are record highs -and no bankruptcy is allowed for students -even though drug users with credit card debt can get more bankruptcy protection LOL)

(Why? Students can not get student loans, and unscrupulous colleges & universities raise tuition out the roof since the student can ((temporarily)) afford it! LOL)

Example 3: MEDICAL co$ts are skyrocketing now that hospitals know that Uncle Sam pays for much more than in the past -with many social programs in place.

BOTTOM LINE: While I support funding for higher ed (especially the sciences), I wonder if gov’t support is the right way.

Three (3) “Positive” Examples of the free market working:

Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and Burger King are not generally supported by customers who get gov’t “subsidy,” and guess what?

The price of a big Mac is like REAL low -at least not something that will bankrupt you.

Any thoughts??

Gordon Wayne Watts, editor-in-chief, The Register http://www.GordonWayneWatts.com / http://www.GordonWatts.com

BS, The Florida State University, Biological & Chemical Sciences
AS, United Electronics Institute

2. Gordon WAYNE Watts (aka FLASH Gordon! :-) - January 26, 2011

Just to make sure all readers know (some don’t!!) …

A ‘Billion’ is a THOUSAND Millions (a LOT!)

PS: I would agree to a LARGE cut in welfare, disability, social security, etc., since my religious beliefs hold that the CITIZEN (and sometimes the church), NOT the government, is the proper provider for social services, food, clothing, even shelter – see e.g., Isaiah 58:6-7; Matthew 25:31-46; Acts 6:1-3 of the Holy Bible.


3. Andy - January 26, 2011

If theorists can’t be held to a factor of 2, I suspect politicians can’t be held to a factor of 10. 🙂
But seriously, I think your missing factor of 2 above (.8B vs. 1.7B) comes from talking about the average savings per year over 5 years at 2008 levels, as opposed to just the savings rate in 2008.

4. Concerned Physicist - January 27, 2011

The true story is Congress can not reduce deficit&debt by just cutting non-entitlement program. They have to go after military spending, Social Security and Medicare. Cutting research program won’t help.

5. Gordon Wayne Watts - January 28, 2011

Thx 4 posting my feedback, Dr. Watts — as you know, I am a scientific ‘Gordon Watts’ too (different middle name, and my emphasis was Biology / Chemistry at FSU: Double major with honours -but I too had to take a few high level physics classes for my degree).

*** Thus, I too support funding for “the sciences,” but ONE QUESTION ***

Don’t you think that if the gov’t is supporting higher-ed sciences -instead of the free market -that there will be a tendency to spend like money’s going out of style?

(I say this because when gov’t funding is provided, it “distorts the market” & over-spending tends to occur, but when the free market is providing the funding, prices are low -because the business knows that high prices will drive off customers.)

Am I right to favour free-market funding over gov’t funding for higher ed?

6. A blogesfera de física « Ars Physica - February 17, 2011

[…] We are broke or not? Where is the data? (Life as a physicist) […]

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