The Intersection

A while back I blogged about an idea floated by Morton Kondracke: That George W. Bush should try to become the “science” president by emphasizing, in his State of the Union speech, themes of global scientific competitiveness and the need to ensure that the good old USA is leading the pack. Well, it now seems official: According to the Boston Globe, in his speech tonight Bush plans to highlight Norman Augustine, a former Lockheed Martin CEO who “last year led a congressionally mandated National Academies team that issued a report warning that America is ‘on a losing path’ in the global marketplace.” Why are we falling behind? If you believe the NAS, it’s because of inadequate scientific and mathematical training for our high school students, not enough funding of basic scientific research, etc etc.

As I said previously, I’m glad that Bush is (apparently) planning on supporting more scientific research and better scientific education. Bravo. But the president is not exactly a credible messenger on matters of science, and this strategic repositioning does not do away with his vulnerability on the topic. Let us not forget that the president himself has misled the country about stem cell research and endorsed the teaching of “intelligent design” alongside evolution in high schools. The latter is especially troubling in that it undermines science education, which is an area where you’d think we’d want to be improving if we are to keep pace with other technologically advanced nations.

Moreover, Bush has shown shoddy scientific leadership. He has presided over an administration that’s demonstrated a systematic habit of doctoring scientific information, putting out misinformation, tilting scientific advisory panels, and suppressing the honest opinions of government scientists (aka James Hansen). Indeed, the timing of the new Hansen revelations couldn’t be better in terms of undermining the new “pro-science” message that will be coming from the administration. If Bush cares so much about science, why doesn’t he show it by telling the NASA PR team to lay off the nation’s most famous climate scientist?

Finally, I believe that Bush is about as credible on science as Newt Gingrich was. Gingrich, you will recall, is big booster of scientific research as a way of increasing technological innovation and economic growth. But at the same time, while running Congress, Gingrich showed little appreciation for quality scientific advice, presiding over the dismantling of the Office of Technology Assessment and rampant politicization of science in the new Republican Congress.

Indeed, this would seem a common theme with many conservative Republicans: They think science is great, except when its results conflict with the pet interests of some particular constituency. But if you sell out scientific knowledge too frequently for political gain, people are going to question your sincerity the next time you try to explain how important science is to the nation. That’s Bush’s conundrum, and I frankly don’t see how he’s going to find a convincing way out of it.

CLARIFICATION: Reading over this post again, I realize that by saying “It’s Official,” I’m implying that I know what’s going to be in the president’s speech. I didn’t mean to claim such clairvoyance. This post is based on the reporting of the Boston Globe, which said it was “expected” that Bush would highlight Augustine tonight. I certainly don’t know any more than the Globe does….

Comments

  1. #1 jackd
    January 31, 2006

    Gingrich’s interest in science is that of the gadget freak. He’s fascinated with new shiny toys. Like many techno-pundits, he gets caught up in how the latest shiny toys are going to Change the World, and like them, sometimes he has a useful insight or two. But as far as I can tell, he has very little interest in the search for knowledge for its own sake.

    And then there’s the President. Has this man ever in his life demonstrated the least amount of intellectual interest or curiosity? Him calling for better science education is like Bill Clinton calling for an emphasis on marital fidelity.

  2. #2 Mark Paris
    January 31, 2006

    I am not sanquine. If Bush positions himself as the science president, the effect will be to science as the prescription drug benefit is to medicine costs: the illusion of doing something to solve the problem.

  3. #3 Orac
    January 31, 2006

    Let’s not forget that this administration is in the process of tightening funding for research. Funding for the NIH is nearly flat, which translates to a cut when adjusted for inflation. The funding cutoff for NCI grants, for example, was around the 20th percentile a couple of years ago. It was the 16th percentile last year (the year I got funded), and may fall to as low as the 10th percentile this year. We haven’t seen funding levels this tight for NIH grants since the recession in the early 1990′s, when funding levels fell to the 8th percentile or so.

    The NIH budget is only around $33 billion, a drop in the bucket compared to many other programs, making the NIH one of the best investments the federal government makes. Ditto the NSF.

  4. #4 P.M.Bryant
    January 31, 2006

    I’m glad that Bush is (apparently) planning on supporting more scientific research and better scientific education. Bravo.

    Bush’s words, if history is any guide, will be followed up by little or no new funds or initiatives. This is just feel-good stuff to present to the public, while the same ol’ same ol’ anti-science attitude and policies go on behind the scenes.

  5. #5 Paul Riddell
    January 31, 2006

    George W. Bush pushing science education is like Jeffrey Dahmer pushing vegetarian cuisine.

  6. #6 Roger Pielke Jr.
    January 31, 2006

    Orac-

    Not sure where you get your budget information, but you might wish to dig a little deeper. NIH has recent had its budget DOUBLED. And while I am no fan of Bush Administration science policies, they have overseen the largest increase in R&D spending since the 1960s, with much of it going to research in NIH, see this discussion:

    http://www.cspo.org/ourlibrary/perspectives/Pielke_October04.htm

    If you want to improve chances for NCI funding, then you might consider opposing the president and Congress when they seek funding to create more PhD researchers in all fields. The number of researchers (and multiple proposals from single researchers) growing faster than budgets explains the trends in proposal pressure that you’ve seen, not lack of funding, which for NIH has been nothing short of an incredible rate of growth over the past decade.

  7. #7 Orac
    January 31, 2006

    I think you give Bush too much credit here.

    The budget doubling to which you refer began under Clinton and finished in FY 2003, meaning three of those years were Clinton years (FY 1999, 2000, and 2001) and two were Bush years (FY 2002 and 2003). I gave Bush props back then for completing the doubling of the NIH budget that started under Clinton, and I still do (even though my opinion of Bush, for a variety of reasons, has greatly soured since then). However, since then, the NIH budget has been more or less flat, with an increase of 3.7% in 2004, 2% in 2005, and a sub-1% increase proposed in 2006, with previous speculation several months ago of even a small cut. Regardless of what it finally ends up being, it won’t be much.

    Also, given the last three years, the rate of growth of the NIH budget hasn’t been as spectacular as it seems. Worse, because of the doubling, the NIH has accumulated a portfolio of grants with out year commitments that put the squeeze on funding at least through FY 2008. The only way the NIH managed to keep the number of new R01s from falling last year was to take a 22% cut off the top of all newly granted R01s, which is what they did to mine.

    More (a couple of years old but still relevant):

    Now, even with more than double the budget it had in 1998, the NIH is pondering its future. During the last five years, the agency’s budget rose by about 15 percent annually. Last month Congress approved a budget for 2004 that contains an increase of just 3.7 percent over the previous year. And President Bush is expected to recommend this week an increase of about 2 percent for 2005 fiscal year, which begins October 1.

    After so many years of big raises, the NIH has built up a base of multiyear grants that it has committed to continue financing. As a result, a period of slow growth may force the NIH to cut the number of new grants and competively awarded renewals.

    The squeeze from the smaller increases will be cushioned somewhat in 2004 because money spent in 2003 for construction of bioterrorism laboratories will be available for other purposes. But that cushion will disappear in 2005. To avoid a crunch then, scientists have been busy lobbying Congress to continue increases for the NIH at its historical average of about 9-percent annually. Still, there appears to be little appetite among lawmakers for increases that large, especially with a growing federal deficit.

    That means that the NIH may be set for another round of boom and bust, like what the agency saw from the mid-1980s, when increases were relatively generous, to the mid-1990′s, when they flattened out. And if the agency gets annual increases of about 2 percent for the next three years, as the Bush administration has projected, it will bring its budget in 2007 to approximately the same level it would have reached had the doubling never occurred and the agency’s budget risen at its historical annual average.

  8. #8 ksimcha
    January 31, 2006

    Thank you, Orac, for your response to Roger Pielke. The record growth of the NIH budget in recent years was necessary to compensate for the stagnation and even decrease (1996, by 5%) of the NIH budget in the 1990s. Even the very modest decrease in my institute’s (NIBIB) funding this year has had devastating consequences on the number of grants funded: for 2005, the R01 cutoff was 20%, and for 2006, the cutoff is 13% (with grant budgets also reduced by 10%). I can find no other time when such a drastic decrease occurred over the span of just a single year. (for 2005/2006 NIBIB data:)
    http://www.nibib.nih.gov/publicPage.cfm?pageID=4090
    http://www.nibib.nih.gov/publicPage.cfm?pageID=1916

    And the people that this hurts the most are young investigators. My field desperately needs the fresh ideas and new skills added by junior faculty, but I now find that these incredible funding decreases are the most discouraging thing I’ve encountered in my career thus far. The sciences are going to lose junior faculty quickly at this rate, and I hope we can all agree that the loss of bright minds in basic science and engineering research is very undesirable.

    The last thing I want to note is that, while we don’t typically associate defense spending with the NIH, many of the increases in the NIH budget have been filtered toward specific calls for proposals involving defense-related issues, such as bioterrorism. According to microbiologist colleagues of mine, it has been quite challenging in recent years to get funding for their research that is not bioterrorism-oriented, despite the fact that their overall institute budget increased significantly.

  9. #9 Roger Pielke Jr.
    January 31, 2006

    Orac and ksimcha-

    Thanks for these responses. Please allocate credit to Clinton/Bush however you see fit.

    My point is that complaining about budgets alone is not going to address the problem that you are complaining about. As budgets increase, decrease or are held constant, the number of researchers competing for funding under any scenario is rising much faster than budgets can or will. As Orac writes, “because of the doubling, the NIH has accumulated a portfolio of grants with out year commitments that put the squeeze on funding at least through FY 2008.” Unless something is done to manage the supply of scientists seeking grants, more funding will simply beget more PhDs, many of who will be seeking research careers.

    This is not just a NIH problem, of course, but across the science enterprise. but for NIH the problem is particualrly acute, as crying poverty in the face of the recent doubling will sound pretty crazy to many policy makers.

    The answer to this situation isn’t simple, but I’m pretty sure that complaining about budget increases probably isn’t a particularly useful approach. In fact, successful lobbying for more rapidly increasing the NIH budget (unlikely I’d guess) are just going to make the problem worse down the road.

  10. #10 DrYak
    January 31, 2006

    Roger,

    I’m sorry I must have misunderstood your commet (or at least I hope that I did). Are you seriously suggesting that the main problem with funding is that there are too many scientists? Given the shear scale of the scientific enterprise and the huge number of topics that are woefully under-researched and underfunded it just boggles the mind that you could think that cutting down on the number of PhDs being produced is a solution to anything.

  11. #11 ksimcha
    January 31, 2006

    Great post, DrYak. I believe that slowing or halting the growth of the number of PhD researchers is deleterious for reasons rooted both in research progress and educational goals. In my personal experience, the more people we have working on a problem, the more (and better) results we produce. Given the natural and continuous increase in the number of potential research topics, it makes no sense to me to keep the number of functional researchers stagnant, thus leaving so many topics uninvestigated due to a lack of manpower to tackle them. Furthermore, I was under the impression that it was a national goal to increase the number of people in the US graduating with science/engineering degrees in order to keep up with other technologically-advanced countries (I can’t cite an exact source here, but it seems like I constantly read about this in the news). If it is, in fact, a goal in this country to increase science and engineering scholars, then I believe that the demand to allocate funds to achieve this goal (i.e. continued and large increases in NIH/NSF budgets to support researchers and their students) is absolutely reasonable. I strongly believe that we do not need a reduction in the number of people pursuing these degrees – on the contrary, we need to find ways to further increase the number of these students. In my particular situation, we turn away over 50% of undergraduate students who apply to get into our department and have already been admitted to the university, purely because our faculty size cannot handle more students. Cutting federal research money is not a good way to recruit more sorely-needed faculty to my field.

    Lastly, I should add a disclaimer that I may not be terribly objective on this issue. I am a female assistant professor in engineering that has sacrificed a heck of a lot in order to reach my current position, so the idea of a necessary funding-induced culling of junior faculty has me a bit bothered.

  12. #12 David Soul
    January 31, 2006

    Roger Pielke Jr. said;
    “Unless something is done to manage the supply of scientists seeking grants, more funding will simply beget more PhDs, many of who will be seeking research careers.”

    And what a fatuous waste of money too … no doubt it is much better to have every progressive nation generating more scientists and engineers (in every field and every level) of eneavor than the USA… and of course of such thoughts do come the decline of empires.

  13. #13 Roger Pielke Jr.
    February 1, 2006

    DrYak- Thanks. No I was not at all suggesting a cutting down of the number of scientists. But there is a simple population problem that calls into question the sustainability of the current approach.

    Consider how many PhDs a typical research scientist produces in a career. Figure that some percentage of these students will want careers in research. If the whole community operates this way you have PhD scientists multiply like rabbits, replacing themselves many times over leading to demands for resaerch funding that exceed supply, a growing “underclass” of serial post-docs and soft-money researchers, and PhDs underemployed or unwillingly employed in non-research positions. Hey, gues what? That looks a lot like the real world to many disillusioned PhDs of the 1990s and 2000s.

    The dramatic increase in proposal pressure across agencies is due to this simple geometric growth. Calling for increased funding in such a situation is understandable, particularly for people lucky enought to be in hard money research positions (e.g., tenure track faculty). But it won’t address the more fundamental problem of supply/demand created by the current model of PhD production.

  14. #14 gengar
    February 1, 2006

    Roger Pielke Jr. said:

    Calling for increased funding in such a situation is understandable, particularly for people lucky enought to be in hard money research positions (e.g., tenure track faculty). But it won’t address the more fundamental problem of supply/demand created by the current model of PhD production.

    Erm…that still sounds like a fancy way of saying, ‘we’re producing too many PhD students’ (well technically, ‘you’re’, but the funding situation is just as bad in the UK funding-wise at the moment).

    But, out of interest, do you have an alternative model?

  15. #15 Roger Pielke Jr.
    February 1, 2006

    gengar-

    Some alternatives are presented here:

    http://www.grad.washington.edu/envision/project_resources/index.html

  16. #16 DrYak
    February 1, 2006

    Roger,

    Thanks for the link (to one of my alma maters). I’ve not had the time to read it in detail – I’ve a huge pile of papers to read and articles to write, but I did read quite a bit of it, particularly the 2000 conference. Nowhere, however, did I see proposals for reducing the number of PhDs being produced. I saw very sensible ideas for improving the quality of mentoring, teaching, career guidance, etc (albeit couched in some unclear corporate-style lingo) and ideas for increasing the number of students – by recruiting more women and minorities, but nothing about fundmentally changing the number of people or the mentor-grad student model. So what, concretely, are your proposals?

    I agree that the current indeterminate length post-doc/junior faculty system can’t go on for much longer but I’m still unsure as to how you propose to change this.

    The grad student-faculty mentor system is still the gold standard for a PhD as far as I’m concerned. A comittee or coursework works well for some aspects but nothing can replace a close one-to-one interaction with a mentor (not that this is always achieved of course).

  17. #17 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    February 2, 2006

    DrYak- Thanks. To be clear, I’ve not advocated reducing the number of PhDs. However, it may be in the interest of PhD science programs to develop multiple career tracks for their PhD students and recruit/train appropriately. Today, not every PhD who wants one can get a tenure-track faculty position, much less every PhD who graduates. The development of “professional PhD” programs might help this situation. Some engineering programs do this already. Clearly setting expectations for prospective and entering PhD students about job prospects and career paths would go a long way to addressing this issue. It is a bit akin to informing college atheletes that only X% of them will ever have careers in professional athletics. It is both the ethical thing to do, but also the pragmatic thing to do. Thanks!

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