jump to navigation

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!


The Atom Smashers November 24, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in Fermilab, science, USA.

The Atom Smashers (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/atomsmashers/) will show on PBS on Tuesday night. It looks like it focuses on Fermilab and the particle physics research occurring there. I like their tag line:

After funding cut backs, Fermilab—a premier U.S. government research laboratory focusing on particle physics—is struggling to survive. Physics, politics and international competition collide as scientists race to find one of the most elusive sub-atomic particles ever theorized: the Higgs boson.

Elsewhere on the site the film makers claim they don’t try to answer questions – but rather to get you to "think":

We hope this film will raise the awareness of America’s strange relationship with science. We don’t attempt to answer questions in our film, but rather to raise them. Is this research worth doing? Should we care about it? Should the U.S. participate in it or let it get done elsewhere? Also, we hope to help demystify science and scientists. We’d love it if a viewer came away thinking, “You know, those scientists are not really that different from me."

That last line being one of the main points of this blog!! Leave a comment if you get a chance to see it – I’d like to know what you think!

This show is part of PBS’ Independent Lens project. I have no idea if it will be available online. I hope so as I don’t have a TV receiver (their videos online are all very short, so I might be out of luck)!

P.S. Sorry about the links (and lack of them) – the computer I’m on doesn’t have my normal blogging software and so is a pain-in-the-butt to use.

The LHC is too big to fail! November 17, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science, USA.


A friend of mine and I were discussing the bailout. The consensus seems to be that large companies – like GM and Chrysler – are too big to fail.

Can we say the same thing about a science experiment like the LHC? 🙂 Could we apply for extra science funding under the bailout program?

Keeping Perspective September 22, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science, USA.

The bailout proposed by the US government to keep our financial system afloat is going to be about $700 billion (US). I’m guessing that is going to rise to about $1 trillion or so by the time all is said and done. I can’t really fault the government on this – now that we are here something like this has to be done. It looks bad to even myself and I’m sure if I knew more about economics I’d be even more scared for the US financial system.

The LHC cost about $7 billion. So, you could build 100 of those for the price of this bailout. But it doesn’t stop there – this is going to be a hang-over the US budget will be paying off for years to come. Guess what is going to get hit… you got it. I’m sure funding for science in general is going to be down in the future. Ugh. Not only is that 100 LHC’s worth of science (all types of science!!) we could have done, but it will mean less science in the future as well.

How stupid is that!? I don’t know who to get pissed off at either – this seems to be a problem of group think. Like the echo chamber of the blogosphere.

To the Moon and Mars – Is It True? September 3, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science, USA.

I’m still in Ottawa, gently re-integrating myself back into North America. I can actually stay up past 9pm now (jet lag!). Going though old email I stumbled on this:

The Democratic presidential candidate has called for the U.S. to lead the way in terms of space exploration, and wants to put astronauts on the moon yet again.

On top of that, he also wants to pursue the eventual goal of putting astronauts on Mars.

Barack Obama has come out and stated that by 2020, he wants another U.S. trip to the moon, and has also promised full support, with a great deal of funding for NASA.

Is that really Obama’s position? Wait. I guess I can look at his web site now… Under Issues on his site Science isn’t listed. Wait — I was about to get lost in how little Science is mentioned on his web site – which is a whole other post. Just concentrating on NASA… Ok — couldn’t find it under issues. I did find this position paper. I found it via a search engine, so I’m not sure exactly what it was (talking points for a speach, etc.). But it directly addresses space exploration. First of all, it is balanced. It notes that basic research (for climate change, etc.) has all been cut. And that funding would have to be restored.

But it still talks about human space flight – and almost always as a feel-good exercise rather than something scientific. When he gets to the meat of the human space flight component of what he wants to do, he starts with the following:

Human spaceflight is important to America’s political, economic, technological, and scientific leadership.

and then

He supports a funding goal that maintains at least 10 percent of the total exploration systems budget for research and development.

So, 90% is all about feel good and getting back to the moon and mars, and 10% is about doing the actual science. Also, why is he so fixated on the microgravity experiments that were to take place on the International Space Station before funding cuts eliminated them?

I am a bit disappointed in this. I really don’t think it is a good use of our countries resources to send a person to Mars. I’m all for sending more robots there – lots of them. Much cheaper (it doesn’t matter so much if they don’t come back). And the science they can do is better (the rocket fuel you save on not sending a human you can use to send extra equipment).

I’d like to see this country get on with funding real science. And less of this:

“When I was growing up, NASA united Americans to a common purpose and inspired the world with accomplishments we are still proud of. Today, NASA is an organization that impacts many facets of American life. I believe NASA needs an inspirational vision for the 21st Century. My vision will build on the great goals set forth in recent years, to maintain a robust program of human space exploration and ensure the fulfillment of NASA’s mission….”

US ATLAS Construction: Check! July 2, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, science, USA.

Being lifted into placeThis is a by-product of big science – and the resulting management and budget oversight. The last bit of the ALTAS detector was shipped over to CERN a long long time ago. For example, at UW, we spent almost three years running continuous production for the forward muon chambers (the picture is that of one of them being lifted into place). The last one left our lab more than 2 years ago (might even have been 3 now). In fact, an astro-physics experiment has chopped up the large granite block and taken over the space already.

A project like ATLAS evolves. There is no real beginning. And it will be hard to identify an end. People will be working on it long after it has ceased to take data, for example.

But that isn’t true for the bureaucracy. Budgets and oversight demand a definite start and a definite end. And that just happened for the construction phase for the ATLAS project in the USA. The budget was tied off. No more money for construction. All wrapped up.

I originally wasn’t going to write anything about this. From the point of view of science and public interest in how ATLAS is doing this is, basically, a non-event. What do you care as long as ATLAS sees collisions and produces physics? You don’t care so much about the meat grinder aspect, just that the sausage tastes good, right?

It was the fairly continuous stream of emails that came after the announcement that changed my mind. It has slowed to a trickle now, but there is still about one a day congratulating everyone involved. From the point of view of the managers and people working in the funding agencies this is really a very big deal. BTW — most of the people managing this both inside and outside the funding agencies are scientists or ex-scientists themselves. At any rate — many of these folks labor outside the public eye, but they have done a great job keeping ATLAS going in the USA. After all, without funding, there is no way I or anyone else could participate in the physics! Howard Gordon, at Brookhaven, is mostly singled out for keeping the project on track, though many other names are mentioned.

As one of the congratulatory messages said: “On to operations!”… which happens to be what the physics phase of the funding will be called. 😉 Weird to see how the bureaucracy in a project like this maps to the real life.

UPDATE: Fixed Howard Gordon’s affiliation.

More Funding For All Of Science March 28, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science, USA.
1 comment so far

Persis Drell (SLAC director), along with Steven Chu (LBNL director), and Thom Mason (Oak Ridge Director) had a chance to visit the house speaker the other week.

We explicitly told the Speaker that we three Directors of major research institutions were not asking for anything for our individual laboratories. Our message was that a broad national commitment to scientific research and innovation was necessary—and that this would certainly create an environment in which we, and our partners in the academic community, could compete and thrive.

Exactly. I couldn’t agree more.

I personally doubt there is much more than can be done for this year’s budget mess (but I’m in favor of trying!!), but perhaps we can convince congress to be ready for the ’09 budget – which probably won’t be settled until well after the election.

The Exchange Rate March 26, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life, science, USA.

ChartAs I write this the exchange rate is about $1.54 US to one euro. This will probably come out the middle of next week – no telling what it will be then.

When I moved over here on July 1 the dollar was $1.35 US (see Yahoo! Finance).

Even though France is helping out by paying me a per-diem over here, it is paid in constant dollars. Darn.

Our graduate students and post-docs over here are in the same boat. They are also paid in constant dollars. It is worse for them, of course, as they are paid less than I am and so have less of a cushion to fall back on (I don’t even want to talk about what has happened to my savings account during the stay over here!).

Indeed, we just had to raise the student’s battle pay in order to account for the exchange rate difference. Where does this money come from? Our grant, of course. To supplement the grant so that it can accommodate these increases we are asking for extra cash, of course, but everyone doing physics over in Europe is in the same boat and there just isn’t much extra money in the various funding agencies coffers after the last budget battle.

I don’t see the dollar coming down soon. I keep hoping it will plateau. This latest turn-around is, I think, only temporary. But it is definitely cutting into our ability to send people over to Europe, and we do science with people – less people, less science. It started with a small fraction of bad loans, which is slowly claiming more and more people – and now spreading out from the housing sector to the financial sector and… to the science sector. If there is such a sector!

BTW – when the insurance adjuster dropped by we talked a bit about the financial crisis in the US. He said it was a scandal: “Why haven’t you guys caught the people responsible?”

"I do." October 17, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, USA.
1 comment so far

Should we believe? I read this while trying to not work on the talk I have to give tomorrow.

Mr. Mukasey noted that a 2002 memorandum by Jay Bybee, an assistant attorney general at the time, stating that the president had the power to circumvent the Geneva Conventions as well as laws banning torture, was later disavowed and superseded.

“Would it be a safe characterization of what you’ve just said that you repudiate this memo as not only being contrary to law, but also contrary to the values America stands for?” Mr. Leahy asked.

“I do,” the nominee replied.

“Thank you,” Mr. Leahy said. “Is there such a thing as a commander-in-chief override that would allow the immunization of acts of torture that violate the law?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Mr. Mukasey said.

On one hand, this is encouraging to hear. On the other hand, he isn’t exactly going against any current practices in the Bush administration — as he noted, they have already decided that memo is wrong. But what about all those other memos that came afterwards that redefined various practices as “not being torture?”