Funding science in a slow economy

Early last week, Senators Tom Coburn (R- Oklahoma) and John McCain (R- Arizona) released a report entitled “Summertime Blues: 100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues.” Among the projects highlighted in the report, there are a number of research studies funded by the National Science Foundation from their portion of last year’s stimulus funds (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Of the $862 billion total dispersed by Congress, the NSF received $2 billion specifically for “research and related activities.” NSF chose to use these funds for highly rated proposals that had already been submitted for review, but which would otherwise have gone unfunded due to budget constraints.

Let me be clear from the beginning: it is not the goal of this blog to take any political stance. Our main interest is science, and science is not an inherently political pursuit. The opinions of policy-makers are not directly relevant to our pursuit of truth about the natural world. However (you knew there would be a “however”), we cannot ignore the fact that a large portion of research funding comes from the federal government. So we are required to take notice when politicians comment on the value of our work to society.

The report’s basic premise is: “We owe it to all Americans that are paying taxes and struggling to find jobs, to rebuild our economy without doing additional harm, and to do it in a way that expands opportunities for future generations… Too many stimulus projects are failing to meet that goal.”

Model of an ant at CAS

Some of the projects they refer to are close to home. Number 6 is a proposal from the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) to study ants and other insects on islands in the Southwest Indian Ocean. The Coburn/McCain report says, “The project’s goals are, to the lay person, both laudable and arcane.” (Aside: do lay people use words like laudable and arcane?) They also quote the grant’s PI saying, “[Ants] give us back the most data on the environment than any other group. Their life cycle is shorter, they change very quickly.” This strikes me as a perfectly legitimate motivation for an entomology research project, so we are left to assume that the senators do not approve of job creation for entomologists.

Number 37 is a grant to Professor Imke de Pater, the chair of Astronomy here at Cal. Her group will use the funds to study atmospheric dynamics on Neptune. As the report’s authors put it, “Results will be compared with previous analysis from the Voyager era, when coincidentally, the unemployment rate was lower.” The message here is unambiguous: as long as the American economy is struggling, science should not be a priority.

Many questions come up for me personally as I ponder the sentiment behind this report. First, is this a case of non-scientists tragically misunderstanding the scientific pursuit? Number 28 on the list is a study by researchers at Wake Forest University on how cocaine affects metabolism in non-human primates. You could call this “studying drug-crazed primates,” but then I would ask you: how else should we try to learn about metabolism and develop treatments for drug-addiction? Would the economy benefit from the people in this research group losing their jobs due to insufficient funding?

Senator Coburn is an M.D., trained as an obstetrician; surely he must appreciate to some degree the value of scientific research. And I’m not talking about academic, philosophical value. It should be obvious that science and innovation fuel economic growth; we need to be able to take the long view and invest in research that doesn’t have an immediate payoff.

Senator Coburn with President Obama

Perhaps what is obvious to me is still somewhat unknown to the general public. Amy Sheck is a biologist at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and a patron of the North Carolina State University Insect Museum, which received one of the targeted NSF grants (number 68). As she puts it, “Scientists are particularly vulnerable to this type of ‘character assassination’ because they are not in the habit of defending themselves in the political arena and are easy prey for politicians who want to score points.”

So that you don’t think Coburn and McCain picked only on science, I’ll leave you with one more item from the list: Number 65, wherein the FCC hired people to install DTV converters during the transition to digital broadcast. Seems like the perfect short-term job creation fix for people averse to long term investments, right? The senators complain that, “Most DTV converter boxes are no more difficult to hook up than connecting the ‘antenna-in’ cable, the ‘TV-out’ cable, and the power cord into an outlet.” But as someone who has tried to explain technology to the elderly, I can assure you that the work of these brave men and women was much appreciated by tax-paying grandparents across the nation.

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  1. Ryan Boyko

    I would like to point out that these grants largely fund the salaries of graduate students, postdocs and lab technicians — people making fairly small amounts of money who will probably spend almost all of their income every year. In other words, giving them these jobs will further stimulate the economy.

    But regardless of this, the larger point is that investing in basic science has huge rewards for a society in the decades that follow. If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself why the fastest growing developing economies, such as China, spend so much on it. And remember everything that came out of Bell Labs, the space program and random discoveries that occurred while doing other research (radiation, many medications, etc).

  2. Anna Goldstein

    Good point, Ryan. On the subject of poor graduate students, I recommend this recent article from Miller-McCune. The economy benefits tremendously from cheap researchers, but then all that intellectual capital is wasted in the employment bottleneck.