Technology with attitude

Now on the Stimulus Chopping Block: America’s Scientific and Technological Competitive Edge


Hat tip to Adam at TheCrossedPond, himself a physicist, for catching this. As the battle to frame the stimulus package is being lost to the Republicans, congressional Democrats and the President are getting antsy to find some kind of compromise, quick, before the whole thing goes tits up.

Key to passage of the stimulus package appears to be the Nelson-Collins amendment, a measure intended to appease conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans by chopping out a good 100 billion in stimuli. For my money that’s a good impulse, but one of the things that’s worrying is the broad brush that budget-slashers are using as they decide what’s stimulating and what’s pork.

Now considered “pork”, the amendment proposes cutting 100% of the budget of the NSF and like programs (NASA, DOE office of science, NOAA), which is one of the biggest revenue streams in America for funding pure scientific research. Note that between the House and Senate versions of the bill, funding of pure science has already been slashed nearly in half, and in the last few years (particularly 2007), the NSF and other organizations have already seen huge cuts in research funding. Now, as the Senate looks to cut fat, once again scientific research is one of the first (relatively paltry) expenditures on the chopping block.

It’s unclear to me if this money can be put back in once the regular budget and appropriations bills come up, or if this is meant to preempt and override that, but either way, it’s a bad sign. At issue is the fact that pure research is not seen as a very good economic investment. John McCain, for instance, loves to pull out research projects funded by government grants as prime examples of pork, because in a vacuum they can sometimes sound ridiculous (say, 50k to fund a study on whale sex habits, or whatever McCain’s causa belli of the week happens to be). And by its very nature, most research doesn’t pan out to much (i.e. most research doesn’t result in a definitive advancement or new technology. As Einstein famously said “if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research”). But while it’s an easy target, taking the long view, there are very few investments as good as funding pure research.

Putting aside the pure scientific value to humanity and civilization that research produces (and I have no idea why you’d want to put that aside), even on a very short term economic scale, research makes sense. Two big reasons.

The first is that it’s one of the three legs of the stool on which the viability of most American universities rest (the other two being tuition and endowment investments). Universities in America are already going to face the crunch pretty hard as those other two legs are faltering; by allowing research funding to continue, you really are stimulating that segment of the American education system and economy. Cutting out that leg will likely facilitate any number of universities falling underwater, i.e. do the opposite of stimulate them. And when I say that, I’m not just talking about the computer science department at MIT or a marine biology department no longer being able to study whale sex. For almost any university, research funding allows them a certain insulation, allows them to keep tuition costs lower, to expand, it benefits students in all disciplines, it supports the large staffs which are often a significant source of employment for any community in which a university rests. One can, I suppose, make the argument that the government has no place supporting the American university system, but if you do allow that that can be a good economic investment, research funding is a very sensible stream through which to do it.

But secondly, and a point that I think gets overlooked all too often in these discussions, is that people often bitch about how America is getting surpassed in math and science and the like, and losing its competitive edge in that regard to countries like China and India and Pakistan, but they don’t quite realize the nearly 1 to 1 ration of that and research funding. Where do they imagine our next generation of highly skilled specialists are coming from? They come, of course, from universities. And it’s not just people that wind up spending their lives as Post Docs studying Hadron data, but guys that end up in Boeing, or Monsanto, or GM, or as city planners, etc. NSF funding is, in a very real sense, a farm system for scientists and technologists. I think it sounds good for a congressman to cut research funding, because it can be hard to sell to constituents and a ripe target, but I don’t think many people have it very well thought through. Research funding is probably America’s most successful and certainly most pervasive job training program for highly skilled fields (engineering, physics, chemistry, high end math and computer science, etc.).

I’m a pretty libertarian guy in terms of funding stuff, but if there is to be ANY funding of higher education, or any place for the American government to make an investment in keeping our competitive and scientific edge, pure research funding is actually a pretty damn good investment. That the centrists in this debate are already throwing it under the bus (despite it’s miniscule relative cost) is worrisome indeed.

The call is already going out to contact legislators about this (the AAS public policy blog is updating here, Research America here, R & D Mag here, for instance, and great sites like Cosmic Variance are understandably aghast). Hopefully somebody in Washington listens.