Obama and Science Funding

Barack Obama has joined the Science Debate 2008, and his answers to the fourteen debate questions are impressive. I don’t know if Mr. Obama will actually be able to do all that he proposes in his answers to the SD2008 questions, but the fact that he bothered to get the answers right in the first place is a profound improvement over the usual mindless platitudes and dismissal that scientists have come to expect from politicians: Yes, yes, scientific advancements and all that… now, back to Jesus…

Not this time. Whatever his own personal religious beliefs, when asked direct questions about how to fix our nation’s falling place in the world of science and technology, he does know the correct answers. His answers to the SD2008 questions on how to regain America’s edge as a world leader in science and technology demonstrate a remarkably astute grasp of the problems facing science in the US today.

“The US ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; we were in third place thirty years ago.”

“My administration will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade. We will increase research grants for early-career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies.”

The US doesn’t graduate nearly enough scientists and engineers, and one big reason is that there aren’t enough scientists and engineers teaching and doing research at our universities. It costs a lot of money to maintain a good science lab at a university; building space, infrastructure and research equipment are expensive. Sometimes ridiculously so. If you want to educate students to be scientists, scientists who know what they’re doing have to do the teaching; and not just classroom instruction but mentored research projects for undergraduate and graduate students. Where does that funding come from?  Mostly from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

NSF grants pay for expensive materials, supplies, equipment and wages for students to get real research experience while still undergraduates. NSF grants pay for graduate student stipends – typically at poverty wages – to support young people and their families while one or both of them work obsessively hard for years to become an expert with a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. NSF grants pay for postdoctoral jobs, where a novice Ph.D. gains critical and career-defining experience conducting their own original research under the mentoring of a successful scientist. NSF grants support new assistant professors in their first teaching job, trying desperately to build a career and a publication record. That’s how the system works, folks.

Except it doesn’t, anymore. The overall average success rate for an NSF grant proposal was 26% in 2007. In 1998 that rate was 33%. The agency that supports most basic academic research in the US rejects three out of four grant proposals. It’s not because of a lack of quality. I’ve served on federal grant proposal review panels, and I’ve reviewed my share of individual proposals over the years. Most are quite good, many are outstanding, and most go unfunded.

“A vigorous research and development program depends on encouraging talented people to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and giving them the support they need to reach their potential.”

Three out of four young scientists who are trying desperately to establish their careers as researchers in the US will have their grant proposals turned away by NSF, every year. Do US scientists really suck that badly?

Quite the opposite. Most scientists I know have good ideas. Most scientists I know are creative, hard working people who make middle class wages, live in normal neighborhoods of middle class people, and love their research. That is, they love the research they are allowed to do, when they can afford the time to actually do research and not write grant proposal after failed grant proposal, throwing away irreplaceable years that could have been spent in the lab, in the field, or writing papers for publication.

In some NSF programs the success rates are better than others. The Office of the Director program – basically discretionary moneys the director of NSF can allocate based on promising ideas, usually from younger scientists – has success rates that are comparatively high, about 40% (in 2007). But those grants are few, and are generally small. In 2007 OD awarded only 449 grants (median size $22k) out of the 11,484 (median size $100k) awarded by all NSF programs combined. The NSF Office of Mathematical and Physical Sciences awarded more grants than any other NSF division in 2007, giving out 2,361 grants with a median size of $96k, at an overall success rate of 32%. Biotechnology is an emerging field of highly promising research, with the potential to revolutionize medicine. What are the chances of a young professor of biotechnology getting a grant from the NSF Emerging Frontiers program in Biological Sciences? In 2007, they were 12%.

From 1998 to 2007 the success rate for a proposal to the NSF Biological Sciences Division dropped from 29% to 19%. No division of NSF has seen success rates increase in the last decade. Why have success rates decreased so much? Overall, NSF funding by Congress has been increasing through the last thirty years, notwithstanding some ups and downs. On average, the level of total NSF agency funding has increased by about 4% a year in constant dollars, since 1980. What gives?

The number of scientists. In the US the number of scientists increases over time, as population increases and as new research fields open. But federal funding for research has failed to keep up. Scientists in the US have not gotten stupider, become worse writers, or stopped coming up with worthy ideas. They have been abandoned by a federal government who has failed to realize that most of the economic growth our nation has enjoyed since World War II is a direct result of federal funding of scientific research and science education. Yes, the private sector is the engine of jobs, but the private sector is simply not the source of most basic research. Startup companies depend on published scientific discoveries to fuel their clever new business models or applied technologies. Most research into new drugs or medical advancements don’t come from private drug companies, they come from basic research at universities. Mr. Obama seems to actually understand that, unlike most Republicans who fear the advances of science or worry that the next cutting edge discovery will contradict Bronze Age dogma.

“Progress in science and technology must be backed with programs ensuring that U.S. businesses have strong incentives to convert advances quickly into new business opportunities and jobs.”

It’s rare in my experience that a candidate or a sitting politician of either party actually understands how science works. It’s even rarer for politicians to appreciate how scientists work; how we do our jobs, how we struggle for money to carry out research, and how many just give up after having their fifteenth NSF proposal in three years come back rejected with all ‘excellent’ ratings from peer reviewers. I don’t know how much of that Mr. Obama grasps, but he does seem to get that science in the US is shamefully underfunded, given the ambitions we set for ourselves as a nation.

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~ by Planetologist on September 5, 2008.

One Response to “Obama and Science Funding”

  1. […] change in Washington, the one I hope for the most would go to science funding. As pointed out by the planetologist, Obama said in the great Science Debate 2008 that “The US ranks 17th among developed nations in […]

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