The Quantum Pontiff

Craig Barrett, the chairman of Intel has a scathing op-ed in the San Fransisco Chronicle on the recent spending omnibus and its effect on science funding (via Computing Research Policy Blog):

What are they thinking? When will they wake up? It may already be too late; but I genuinely think the citizenry of this country wants the United States to compete. If only our elected leaders weren’t holding us back.

Of course, I can hear the cries already: typical liberal west coaster spouting more government spending. But, oh. Doh. Okay, well what can basic science research possibly lead to anyway.


  1. #1 Ian Durham
    January 21, 2008

    I honestly don’t think that many people will be decrying Barrett’s comments as “typical liberal west [coast].” The impression I’ve gotten by talking to a number of people across the political spectrum is that everyone – even a number of libertarians – are upset at this largely because it is the proverbial exclamation point on the inability of the current Congress to do anything. I think it has gotten so utterly absurd that it has started to transcend party affiliation, political philosophy, etc.

  2. #2 Travis
    January 21, 2008

    Just about everybody agrees we should be funding science more than we do, but everyone also thinks we should be funding lots of things and at the same time everybody thinks we should be cutting spending and/or cutting taxes. Individual beliefs aren’t consistent, let alone opinion polls, formal or otherwise. Meanwhile, non-discretionary spending (e.g., Social Security and Medicare) is the leviathan that’s going to swallow the federal budget whole.

    If you want to find out what is actually going to happen in the “real world” of politics, you have to look at people’s priorities. How many people do you think would rank “basic science” as one of their top three spending priorities? I’d guess about 1-2%.

    An anecdote that illustrates my point: when I went to my senator’s contact page to send her a letter about science funding, I found a form with a pull-down menu with a list of some forty-something topics. Science wasn’t on the list.

    I’m worried about the future of our nation, but not about my career. Why? Because I’ve already decided to leave science. I don’t care to trust my fate to the wisdom of Congress.

  3. #3 Ian Durham
    January 21, 2008

    Actually, the Pentagon and “black ops” (or otherwise classified) funding makes up just slightly more than 50% of the total federal budget. While Social Security may be a drain, the biggest drain is by far the Pentagon. Note, however, that Veterans Affairs is counted here in the 50% Pentagon budget. Most Washington insiders put it in Health & Human Services. While I definitely do not advocate cutting Vet benefits, if we weren’t in Iraq the Vet benefits would be considerably lower as there are already thousands of Irag War vets that are ballooning that part of the budget.

  4. #4 Travis
    January 22, 2008

    Ian: The IRS says National Defense, Veterans, and Foreign Affairs spending summed to 23% of Federal spending in 2006. Social security, Medicare, and other such retirement benefits sum to 36%.
    (scroll to page 86)

    Maybe the 50% figure you heard comes from excluding Social Security from the pie? People sometimes do this because it’s supposedly (but not really) a separate pool of money.

    The real concern is about where Social Security and Medicare will be once the boomers start retiring in force. Something’s gotta give, and I fear that most seniors would rather cut spending for science they don’t understand than cut their own healthcare and retirement benefits. Seniors vote. And no, better science education can’t save us–good luck explaining science to my grandmother.

  5. #5 Dave Briggs
    January 22, 2008

    Doh. Okay, well what can basic science research possibly lead to anyway.

    I keep hearing that if we get a Democrat in the White House things are going to change. I hate to keep singing the same tune, maybe it is wishful thinking, but it feels better to have hope!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  6. #6 Ian Durham
    January 22, 2008

    Travis: First, note that most of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been funded by supplemental appropriations measures not included in the regular budget (at least until FY2008). See this and this. Additionally, some war and defense-related costs are part of other budgetary categories. I’m not entirely sure how it is counted now, but, for instance, the Coast Guard was part of Transportation and Defense depending on whether or not the nation was at war. How this was handled before Homeland Security is beyond me because, technically, it required an Act of War for the CG to become defense, but there was no such act in Vietnam and yet the CG was there.

    Also not that the IRS does not include classified, cross-agency spending in that chunk. One common misperception is that Social Security is funded through income tax dollars. It’s not. The IRS counts it differently as a result. According to a variety of source (e.g. this one [which does not include cross-agency classified ops]).

    In any case, while Social Security is certainly a major drain on the federal budget, the so-called War on Terror (which I take to include Iraq and Afghanistan) is estimated to take up somewhere between 55-65% of federal net discretionary spending depending on what you count in this category.

    As a final disclaimer, I’m a pragmatic libertarian – i.e., rather than messing around in other people’s business, we ought to be taking care of our own and that includes spending more on basic science and technology.

  7. #7 Travis
    January 23, 2008

    Ian: I took a look at the links you posted, and I’m still not seeing how you’d get to defense being 50% of total spending. Also, while I don’t put a whole lot of faith in the IRS, I put even less in the accuracy of Wikipedia for political topics. If you haven’t already, please take a look at the IRS link I posted–it appears to consider all federal spending (including social security).

    I’m also pragmatic and libertarian-leaning. If we have to have large government, I’d rather they be messing up other countries than our own 😉 That said, more science funding would be good.

  8. #8 Ian Durham
    January 24, 2008

    Travis: I agree Wikipedia is not always a good source for information, but I had some other links in there as well that somehow came out all jumbled (must have messed up my html). In all honesty, it is difficult to find any site – IRS included – that is impartial. But, instead of looking at the IRS (which is in the Executive Branch), theoretically speaking the GAO is supposed to be impartial. One can also look at the numbers the CGO puts out (though also potentially partisan in the opposite direction these days). They estimate defense costs in FY2008 to be in the neighborhood of $700 billion. That is purely DoD spending and does not include related outlays in the war on terror. Social Security is estimated to cost $611 billion over the same period. However, note the difficulty in finding the same number for any one thing more than once. The CGO itself gives different numbers for defense depending on whether emergency funding packages are included or not.

    Looking at the GAO numbers, by cabinet-level department, the DoD spent $689 billion in FY 2007. They are outstripped only by HHS, but the question that needs to be asked is how much of the cost of the War on Terror (which includes Iraq and Afghanistan) is hidden (either directly or indirectly) in the budgets of departments such as HHS? For an example of this, consider the increased costs associated with additional regulations instituted since 9/11. If I’ve personally seen an increase in costs due to this, I guarantee you government agencies have (I have worked for four such agencies in my career).

    Additionally, note the $60 billion the Post Office spent in the same year – that’s twice what was spent on the DoJ. And the PO is a semi-privatized entity to boot!

    On another note, the government is also blowing wads of cash on agriculture subsidies (note that Ag is the fourth highest individual dept.), a considerable amount of which goes to conglomerates such as Monsanto and ADM.

    Finally, note that I couldn’t find the so-called “black budget” for classified operations (including the NSA, NRO, CIA, and DIA) in the GAO or CGO budgets. However, ABC News has them. Now they seem to claim it is included in other budgetary expenditures (i.e. DIA would fall under DoD, CIA under State, etc.) but there seems to be a disconnect in some of the numbers that would suggest otherwise. Now, these guys clearly have an agenda to push, but they do break down the estimates to show how much of money from NASA, DoE, etc. goes directly toward military and national defense. I’m not sure I entirely buy their estimate that 80% of the national debt (and thus the payment we make on its interest) is military-related, but it’s still an obscenely high number.

  9. #9 Ian Durham
    January 25, 2008

    Dave must be on vacation. 🙂 I posted a detailed response yesterday with several links to federal agencies and it is still awaiting moderation. Hmm.

  10. #10 Dave Bacon
    January 27, 2008

    Yeah, I was skiing. Sorry about that!

  11. #11 Ian Durham
    January 28, 2008

    Washington state taxpayer and student tuition dollars hard at work, eh? Just kidding.

  12. #12 Dave Bacon
    January 28, 2008

    More like federal tax dollars. Since I’m not teaching this term, the great state of Washington (such as it is) isn’t contributing to my income.

  13. #13 Ian Durham
    January 29, 2008

    Ah, so *my* tax dollars at work! Even better!

  14. #14 Dave Bacon
    January 29, 2008

    Yes. And thank you very much!

  15. #15 getnutri
    March 31, 2008

    Mr. Barrett is quite correct that our competitiveness, as well as our culture, is in decline. Being a republic, however, we have elected the leaders we deserve. We have done this to ourselves and before long, it will be too late to reverse course.

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