Senate slashes science
Friday’s Senate version of the Federal stimulus package cuts funding for science and research, specifically the National Science Foundation (NSF), the top government program supporting investigator-driven scientific research in the US. If you’re a scientist – or simply a person who wishes not to live in an ignorant nation – and you haven’t called or emailed your Congresspersons yet, now might be a good time to do so.
In the Senate version of the stimulus package, funding for NSF “research and related activities” drops to 1.2 G$ (G$ = gigadollars = billion dollars) from the House-proposed 2.5 G$. The House approved 0.4 G$ for “major equipment and facilities construction”, while the Senate prefers only 0.15 G$.
Why does the US Senate hate science so much? More to the point, why – after strong prompting from a highly popular President, during an economic crisis, as one of their first acts in the new session, and after gaining a clear mandate from the voters – does the Senate feel that the US would not be served well by an increase in science funding? Science and innovation fuel economic prosperity, in ways most people probably don’t appreciate. I’ve argued that here before, and will again. The case for science helping drive the engine of progress is clear. When new discoveries are made and new machines invented in a university lab, wonderful advances ensue throughout that and related fields. An obscure study on the properties of the element gallium at high temperatures might sound arcane, until its results are used by a startup company to revolutionize semiconductors. Science, as Carl Sagan said, delivers the goods.
Even beyond the societal benefits of discovery, there’s also a practical side to science funding. When NSF funds an investigator-driven study, most of that money goes to salaries and stipend support for graduate students or undergraduate trainees in the form of paychecks, which go directly back into the economy. Part of the money goes to summer salary for the scientist or scientists who wrote the funded proposal. As it happens, most science faculty at US universities aren’t paid a full-year salary, they’re paid for an eight or nine month salary year and are expected to drum up the rest themselves. Summer salary pays for the time an NSF-funded professor takes when they’re not teaching to carry out research, usually in the summer.
The rest of a typical NSF proposal budget goes to line items like “Materials and Supplies”, “Travel”, “Major Equipment”, and the like. Materials and Supplies funding goes for just that… research-grade chemicals, lab consumables, field gear, and other goods that come from companies paying lots of people to make pipette tips, say, or disposable filters, or test tubes, or any of the tens of thousands of different and highly specialized bits and pieces that scientists go through in a typical research month. Science is highly stuff-intensive, and supports a vast web of small businesses feeding goods and parts to the big research distributors such as Fisher or VWR, from whom I buy my magnetic stir bars and Kim-Wipes. The money gets spent in the economy.
Funding for travel on an NSF proposal budget does not – decidedly does not – pay for private jets or country clubs. It pays for coach airline tickets to field sites and conferences, room and board while on travel, and per diem allowances for food. The money gets spent in the economy.
What about major equipment? Science requires lots of expensive machinery, and there’s really no way around that. A few years ago I was funded by NSF to buy a machine called an inductively-coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer (ICP-OES), which runs about $150,000. That’s fairly cheap, as big science machines go. If I’d wanted a fancier model that uses mass spectrometry – an ICP-MS, it’s called – that would run upwards of half a million dollars. Research instrumentation is nearly always built to order and comprises thousands of specialized parts made by little businesses whose entire means of support is making machine parts for that one instrument line. Most instrument manufacturers don’t make their own parts, they contract out. The money gets spend in the economy.
NSF research grant money, almost by definition, is never wasted. Science budgets are tight because scientists review the proposals of other scientists, and when they see some flaky line item or useless padding they recommend it be cut. Scientists are nothing if not efficient with their funding, because 1) funding is very tight, and 2) NSF will cut you off if you’re not productive with their money. NSF research grant money goes right back to the economy, mostly in wages and productivity. In terms of immediate stimulus, getting grant money in the hands of a clever university scientist is a winner hands down. It’s unfortunate the Senate doesn’t understand that.