Mike the Mad Biologist

Freezing NIH Salaries Helps How, Exactly?

You might have heard how Obama has called for a three year salary freeze for all non-military federal employees. Let’s leave aside the notion that we need every drop of fiscal stimulus we can get our hands on. Instead, I would like to know how this will not make things worse for research in the U.S.

As it is, program officers are overworked and understaffed with support personnel. I can’t see morale increasing with this move. This won’t make retaining people any easier–and probably will make it harder, since the good people will have other options (despite many academics’ dislike of program officers, it’s a difficult and demanding job). Let’s not forget that the public sector currently lags behind the private sector, conservative propaganda notwithstanding. Likewise, on the administrative side, my experience has been that the contracts and the budgetary groups are already overstretched. Now, if you need something approved, it will take even longer–and, in fields where a couple of months matters, it already takes too long.

I would be ok with this if the money were going to Head Start or to increase Pell Grants. Feeding the needy would be a good thing too. Even building some SUPERTRAINS. But it’s not. The money is going to pay for wars we should not be fighting, and keep taxes low on the wealthy*, especially those in the rent extraction businesses (the ones who nail you with every kind of fee they can think of).

This is bad policy in that it is pennywise and pound-foolish.

And before anyone raises the issue of the White House freezing its salaries, well, their salaries should be frozen: they suck at their jobs.

Not hopey. Not at all.

*We have a massive demand problem due to stagnant wages and unemployment. Salaries rise and unemployment drops only when businesses perceive demand. Nobody is perceiving demand right now, and this cut won’t help.

Comments

  1. #1 Paul R Walsh
    December 1, 2010

    Yes, the proposed wage freeze would be somewhat bad for US research. And, yes, the US is spending vastly too much on its military. But, if the US budget were scrutinized in accordance with GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Procedures) then our government was bankrupt 4 years ago, before the financial crisis. See this publication from the newsletter of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, dated July 2006.
    http://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/review/06/07/Kotlikoff.pdf

    The financial status of the US government has significantly worsened since then. Our government cannot afford all of the employees it currently has. Allowing increases in salaries only worsens the problem.

    I agree with your premise that Basic Research is critically important to the future of the US economy. But, we first need to convince the American people that Social Security benefits won’t begin until you are 70 (not 62 nor 65.) Further, Medicare and Medicaid can pay only for BASIC medicine, not organ transplants nor months of expensive palliative care in an end-of-life scenario. [The State of Oregon had the right idea back in the 1990’s, but its plan was declared unconstitutional.]

    And, yes, our military is much too large: a country having 5% of the world’s population should not have a military budget equal to HALF of the world’s military expenditure.

    If we want more spending on Research (which is the only way to keep an advanced economy competitive with cheap overseas labor) then you need to demand from your Senators and Congressmen that they radically cut these other budget-busting expenditures. Even if they do so immediately, the US may still default on its debt. Perform your own careful analysis of the US budget (along with its emergent liabilities) and you can draw your own conclusion. Even the US Congressional Budget office projects that the US will accrue a further $3 Trillion in debt during the next five years.

    Please push for the budget cuts first. A bankrupt nation can’t afford any wage increases.

  2. #2 spurge
    December 1, 2010

    I noticed Paul said nothing at all about taxes.

  3. #3 Larry
    December 1, 2010

    Not just NIH – we at USDA will also see the freeze, as will scientists at DOD (they’ve sequenced a ton of bacterial genomes) and other agencies.

    At USDA the salary freeze may be a strategic move to reduce payouts for retirement. Something between a third and half (yes, that high) of USDA employees are at or near retirement from now to about 10 years out. So, reducing their salaries reduces their retirement benefits.

    I don’t need the yearly pay increase mainly because my costs have not gone up. Inflation is near zero. What this pay freeze does is drive up the difference between what I make and what I could elsewhere.

    My CV is up to date. Always is.

  4. #4 Juice
    December 1, 2010

    It’s not even a pay cut. It’s a flipping freeze. For two whole years. Oh noes. How many people in the private sector (not on Wall St.) are getting pay raises right now. A lot of them are getting pay cuts and many are lucky to still have their jobs, if they do.

    And cost of living is not going up, so why would anyone need a cost of living increase?

    Be thankful for what you’ve got and stop whining like spoiled children.

  5. #5 Juice
    December 1, 2010

    Good luck with that Larry. You won’t leave. I’m sure your job with the USDA has a really nice salary and sweet sweet benefits that you won’t get in the private sector. Not to mention hella job security, and that’s the main reason you won’t leave.

  6. #6 ian
    December 2, 2010

    I heard on fox news today that the average federal employee compensation is 135000 dollars. Greedy unions! Free market! Small government!

  7. #7 Ted
    December 5, 2010

    If you want government to function effectively (and with the fewest number of people), it needs to attract top people, and the only way to attract top people away from the private sector is to offer competitive salaries. In my opinion, salaries for skilled, educated government employees (especially scientists) have been way too low for way too long. Salaries should be going up, not down.

  8. #8 maƧ izle
    December 30, 2010

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  9. #9 Misyon5ice
    December 30, 2010

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