If you haven’t read the Science letter by George Mandel and Elliot Vesell, and which was nicely summarized by fellow ScienceBlogling Nick Anthis, you should. It chronicles the coming dissolution of American science.
If you think ” the coming dissolution of American science” is too bombastic, I have some very nice ‘re-sized’ levees to sell you. Without repeating the letter or Nick’s post, here’s some data (and analysis) to chew on:
1) the funding rate of new, unsolicited research grants (“R01” grants) has dropped from 20.1% in 2000 to 9.1% in 2005. Mandel and Vesell write, “Peer review cannot discriminate among and accurately select only 1 of 11 meritorious applications.”
2) The average dollar amount per grant has not changed significantly once adjusted for inflation. In other words, science isn’t becoming more expensive.
3) Adjusted for inflation, the total dollar amount in FY2005 (in FY2000 dollars) is only 58.5% of the amount in FY2000. It’s not that there are too many applications–the total number of applications has increased 22%. Keep in mind, however, that as funding gets tighter, investigators submit more grants.
In short, this is due to a lack of funding. Mandel and Vesell write:
…even revision of a rejected application delays by close to a year the time required before support can be approved and research initiated. For type-1 applicants [those submitting new proposals], this is a slow, uncertain process that often leads to a career reevaluation and change by otherwise successful professional contributors. For an ongoing and previously approved type-2 research activity, rejection casts major doubt on eventual continuation and frequently results in breaking up teams of highly trained personnel.
For faculty, many of whom have guaranteed salaries if they are tenure-track or tenured, this is an inconvience. For those whose salaries are dependent on this funding, this is far, far worse.
In the medium term, this is really going to hit hard around 2008, when the last of the five-year grants from the halcyon days of 2002 run out. In the long term, this will kill innovative research: no funder wants to take chances with a one in eleven funding rate (which if you revise and resubmit the proposal, increases to about one in six. Whoopee!!). The one in three rate of competitive renewals means that most ongoing research will crash to a halt. Again, more often than not, the principal investigators will be alright, but the junior people will be hurt hard (time to pack up and move. Again.)
What we have done is provided incentives to leave science, even as we’re being told we need more scientists. But, what the hell, at least Paris Hilton has herself another tax cut. Or as Billmon put it:
What I’ve learned (from 9/11, the corporate scandals, the fiasco in Iraq, Katrina, the Cheney Administration’s insane economic and environmental policies and the relentless dumbing down of the corporate media — plus the repeated electoral triumphs of the Rovian brand of “reality management”) is that the United States is moving down the curve of imperial decay at an amazingly rapid clip. If anything, the speed of our descent appears to be accelerating.
At some point, you can’t flip options–you actually have to create and invent something.