The Funding Issue

Gordon Watts is mad as hell about funding cuts, and blaming petty partisan politics:

As far as I can tell, here is what happened:

  • Congress just about finishes the omnibus spending bill. [Snark: exactly how late was this!?]
  • At the last minute Bush says he will veto it unless it comes at his number. [Snark: Presumably this is to prove that he is a fiscal conservative.]
  • Democrats and Republicans in congress go round and round. They do not have the votes to override a veto in the end.
  • Democrats give up and say ?he wants it 22 billion cheaper? OK, we?ll do it?. [Snark: how did we not miss this big big warning sign that something bad was about to happen!? 20-20 hindsight!]
  • Perhaps 4 days later the bill is ready. They (the democrats or more likely the staffers) when through the bill looking for things that Bush wanted and cut them. ITER, which got nailed, was a presidential initiative. America Competes? Something Bush wanted. I am positive that no one involved would claim this is how it was done, but all fingers I can see point in that direction. [I have no snark here: sad]

What the hell were they thinking? They cut these programs just because they are pissed off at the White House? We elected them there to be intelligent about this. I don’t care that the White House is being a total idiot about this (i.e. not working with congress)– two wrongs don’t make a right!!!

I’m sure that played some role in the cuts, but it’s not the whole story. If they were just looking to piss Bush off by cutting programs he favors, there are bigger and better targets than the DoE science programs– the entire Iraq war, for example.

To get the rest of the explanation, you need to look at what else the de-funded projects have in common: These are all inadequately motivated projects without a strong natural constituency. They cut those projects because they knew there would be no consequences. They were able to cut these projects because we have failed at our jobs as scientists.

Before you start pelting me with bricks, let me be clear what I mean. By “inadequately motivated,” I don’t mean that the science is bad– on the contrary, most of the projects Gordon lists are doing great science, and their loss will do significant damage.

They’re not inadequately motivated in a scientific sense, they’re inadequately motivated in a political sense– the general public does not know what these projects are, or why they’re important. And if the public doesn’t know why they’re important, they’re not going to be outraged when they’re cut.

Look at the big-ticket items on the list of things cut:

  • The International Linear Collider. This is still vaporware, intended as a follow-up machine for the LHC, which isn’t on-line yet. Why is it important? I’m not entirely clear on that– my limited understanding suggests that it would allow greater precision than the LHC in a similar energy range, sort of “zooming in” on anything interesting that they find. I’m not sure, though, and I’m a professional physicist and science blogger– if I don’t know what it’s for, you can bet that the average guy on the street doesn’t know why it’s worth $15 million, let alone the $85 million they were supposed to get.
  • ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. This is supposed to be a big fusion reactor of a tokomak design, to test the feasibility of generating power through nuclear fusion. I’ve been dimly aware of this as an idea that’s been kicking around for twenty years or so. When I heard its funding had been cut, though, my first reaction was surprise that it was actually at the stage where we were expected to be spending significant money on it.
  • The America COMPETES Act (the name is one of those godawful acronyms that they generate on Capitol Hill, and whoever is responsible ought to be pilloried). This is, apparently, the implementation/ authorization bill for the American Competitiveness Initiative. It’s basically a collection of vague promises to spend more money on a bunch of buzz-words.

In political terms, none of these carries any weight at all. The ILC doesn’t exist yet, and nobody knows what it’s for; ITER is one of the best-kept secrets in billion-dollar energy research, and was only formally created within the last year; and the “COMPETES” thing is pretty vague and only four months old. With the possible exception of the ILC, none of these projects has been around long enough to become an established source of funding with a major constituency that could make trouble, and the general public has zero attachment to any of them. The political consequences for cutting these programs are nil.

Whose fault is that? Ours. Well, not me and Gordon specifically, but physics as a discipline, and scientists in general. We have done a pretty good job of getting funding for science over the years, but a piss-poor job of selling science to the general public. These programs are safe to cut because nobody care about them. Nobody even knows that they should care about them.

Look at the news stories about the omnibus spending bill– even the Bush Administration doesn’t bother to mention the specific science programs that were cut. If there were an audience out there who cared that these programs were cut, do you think they’d miss a chance to use the loss of ITER as a club to bash the Democrats? Instead, they’re running with a really lame “too much pork” complaint, because nobody cares about the science projects that were cut.

And we’re not doing a good job of creating that audience. Take a look at the APS press release lamenting the bill. There’s not a compelling sentence in the entire thing. Cutting ITER is bad because it “critically damages American credibility as a reliable scientific partner throughout the world and compromises the nation’s standing as a host of future international scientific facilities,” and the ILC “represents the future of American high- energy physics.” That’s adequate reason for outrage among people who already care about the future of American high-energy physics, but that’s not a large set. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even care that much about the future of American high-energy physics, and this doesn’t offer any reason why I should care.

There’s no reason why this has to be the case. There’s clearly a market out there for stories about high-energy physics– witness the nine thousand “The LHC is coming!” articles published in the last year. People like this stuff, and want to read about it, and it ought to be possible to leverage that into support for funding it.

And the ILC is probably in the best position of the lot, because they’re coming out of the particle physics community, which has gotten pretty good at marketing. There’s simply no excuse for ITER not to have a better base of support, though. This is a high-tech energy alternative, at a time when everybody is all in a tizzy about global warming and energy. If you can’t sell fusion research, you’re just not trying.

(And, for the record, they’re not trying. Their web page is an embarassment. It’s horribly out of date– the last news story in the sidebar is from mid-December, and most of their background material was last updated in early 2006. If you want one fact that demonstrates what a shoddy job it is, here you go: The ITER web pages doesn’t explain what “ITER” stands for. Whoever is responsible for this ought to be the first person out the door when the layoffs come.)

If we want science funding to stop being the first thing on the block when Congress needs to cut something, we need to do a better job of reaching out to the public to create a broad base of support for science (even respect for science would be a start). That means reaching out to write articles, blogs, and web sites aimed at the general public, or at least providing support for those who do outreach to a broad audience (instead of the borderline sneering you see now). It means selling people not just specific projects, but the whole enterprise of science– when you just mobilize for a few big-ticket items here and there, they become isolated projects that aren’t seen in the context of the rest of science, and they’re easier to discard. It means cultivating science reporters and editors in major media outlets, so you can get the word out about a broader range of science topics, and build support for more research programs than just the LHC.

There’s an opportunity out there– lots of people have remarked on the rise of Science Cafes in the last couple of years, so there is an audience for science, if we’re willing to do some work to connect with them and mobilize them. But, at the same time, there weren’t any science books deemed “notable” this year, which tells you that we’re not doing a very good job of making that connection to the broader community of educated people.

If we don’t fix that, we can look forward to eternal “soft money” status for major science funding. Unless there are a large number of people who will react with outrage when science funding gets cut, science funding will continue to be the first thing on the block when Congress wants to send a message. And we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves.


  1. #1 student_b
    January 9, 2008

    Well, there is a reason why the name Iter doesn’t get explained (probably), since it isn’t used as an acronym anymore.

    Officially Iter now is latin for “Way” and doesn’t stand for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor anymore.

    It doesn’t make the site better but… well, it’s joint project. They often don’t have good sites. :/


    As for the cut for it, it doesn’t really surprise me, since the US wasn’t involved from 1998-2003 and Canada had also left about then afaik.

    Still, you’re right, PR for physics often sucks quite bad respectively is inexistent.

  2. #2 student_b
    January 9, 2008

    Just because it’s ironic:

    China will invest about ~140 million dollar into the project which the article says is about 10% of the investment (I guess this year).

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    January 9, 2008

    Well, there is a reason why the name Iter doesn’t get explained (probably), since it isn’t used as an acronym anymore.

    Officially Iter now is latin for “Way” and doesn’t stand for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor anymore.

    Somebody needs to tell the APS that…

    It doesn’t make the site better but… well, it’s joint project. They often don’t have good sites.

    The ILC site is pretty good, especially considering that the device doesn’t actually exist yet. And really, there’s just no excuse for having a web site that’s that bad, in this day and age. Especially if your project relies on millions of dollars of public funding.

    Much as I bitch about the endless LHC hype, they’ve done a terrific job of public outreach, in terms of getting the word out and geenrating excitement about the project. More people in physics need to look to them as a model.

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    January 9, 2008

    1) Bush the Lesser’s Muslim adventurism has cost $2500 billion to date (on the public books);
    2) Entitlements are more than 1/3 of the annual US Federal budget, compassionately gorging appetites that produce nothing but more appetites;
    3) Even Head Start has a larger budget than NSF.

    Rather than foster brilliance, we allocate for its suppression. The productive must sacrifice for the reproductive and the nonproductive. If you think subsidized healthcare is expensive, just wait and see what it costs you when it is free.

    Vote “NO!” on 04 November 2008.

  5. #5 Peter Morgan
    January 9, 2008

    High energy Physics lost the buzz long ago, since well before the SSC was canceled. I suspect that selling HEP and Physics generally as cool, etc., has no impact at all on politicians, who already know that Physicists think it’s cool, etc. What most politicians want to know is something very different, something like how the cost-benefit analysis works out; to make a good argument for more money in that environment requires something like a timeline for the introduction of new technology as a result of advances in Physics.
    Of course it can be said that the most fundamental research doesn’t work that way, but we can’t just throw up our hands and say that, we have to make a compelling argument why politicians should make judgments on Physics research funding on some definite basis different from short term cost-benefit.
    Politicians are also struggling to deal with negative environmental consequences of Science generally, which can be argued to have arisen because technological innovation were introduced widely before we understood what the consequences would be. Science is generally distrusted because some promises that were made for technology appear to have been false promises. That judgment has been established over 200 years, so don’t look to turn it around quickly or without some hard questioning of our intellectual credentials and honesty.
    Finally, the doom and gloom, aside from fellow-feeling for those whose projects or jobs have been abruptly canceled, is not justified. The timeline for fundamental research is not rigid, it doesn’t matter whether a new fundamental theory is figured out in 25 years time or in 100 years, indeed we could perhaps use a hiatus in the introduction of new technology to good advantage, to study our impact on the environment very carefully. In any case, doing good Physics in small laboratories is possible, it just takes longer and requires us to be smarter. A bigger laboratory doesn’t make a Physicist bigger.

  6. #6 Johan Larson
    January 9, 2008

    What constituency with a real voice in Washington pushes for serious money for physics research? (Other than the academics who’d get paid, that is.) The DOD?

  7. #7 Caledonian
    January 9, 2008

    They were able to cut these projects because we have failed at our jobs as scientists.

    It’s not scientists’ job to ensure that people appreciate science.

  8. #8 Anon
    January 9, 2008

    Blaming the Dems for this is not fair either. At best this was what a chess player would call a poisoned pawn. These cuts were made to point out to Bush that his pork contributes to the funding problems, too. Bush could have vetoed the bill. He vetoed the military spending bill, because it could have forced the current Iraq government to be financially libel for lawsuits regarding the behaviors of the Hussein regime. Bush could have compared the two budgets and figured out what was cut. Perhaps he did, and signed the bill anyways. Maybe he judged that the risk of a veto was too great compared to the cost of cutting the budget. Maybe he is just an idiot and didn’t think anything further than the fact that bottom line was what he wanted.

    Despite what was mentioned above about publicizing the research, in fact most HEP research means very little to the average tax payer, other than a “this is cool” reaction. A lot of science is getting to be like this. Tons of money we don’t have dumped down to research esoteric subjects that mean very little beyond the interests of the researchers in the field. Of course, we always hear about how HEP COULD do this, or it COULD lead to that. Fine. Let the corporations that benefit from that research fund it for a change.

    The amazing thing is hearing people whine about job cuts, and loosing their jobs. Welcome to the real world that most of America lives in.

  9. #9 apy
    January 9, 2008

    It’s not scientists’ job to ensure that people appreciate science.

    Do you expect them to hire a PR firm to get the word out?

  10. #10 Caledonian
    January 9, 2008

    Do you expect them to hire a PR firm to get the word out?

    It’s not scientists’ job to babysit the populace, either.

    If our society cannot get what passes for its collective mind together and recognize the importance of science, nothing we can do will change that. And we shouldn’t try.

    A good horse runs at the shadow of the whip. A dead horse won’t run no matter how much you beat it.

  11. #11 Johan Larson
    January 9, 2008

    It’s not scientists’ job to babysit the populace, either.

    If you want to do science with your own money, go ahead. But if you want the public’s money for that purpose, then it is very much your job to persuade them that they should part with it. I mean, really, if it’s not your job, then whose is it?

  12. #12 Janne
    January 9, 2008

    I mean, really, if it’s not your job, then whose is it

    The job of hired PR professionals. Or call it “outreach specialists” if you want; it’s the same thing. Really, that is quite a good, obvious idea and I’m surprised so many in the research community are so negative towards it.

    In most fields, people hire specialists rather than do non-core things themselves. They do it because, well, the specialists are specialists and they themselves are not. Most businesses happily leave IT infrastructure and systems to specialist firms (with the sometime exception of those systems that really _are_ part of the core competency). And most medium-to-large organizations do hire PR people in-house, or contract with PR companies rather than having some middle manager with nicotine-stained fingers and a bad combover trying to do media contacts and fail badly.

    But for some reason academia is too much of “do everything yourself”. We try to do everything ourselves, even when the results are worse and it cost more than just hiring someone to do it. Any large research project should in fact assign some portion of funds to contract with a professional communicator to handle media contacts, do website content, give background for interviews and so on, rather than having a 20-something graduate student whose only qualification for writing engaging popular science is that he once almost got a Buffy fanfic piece accepted in an online fanboy anthology.

  13. #13 Caledonian
    January 10, 2008

    It’s almost as though all the scientists secretly want to be Carl Sagan and don’t want to acknowledge that they aren’t.

    But that’s just silly…

  14. #14 apy
    January 10, 2008

    Considering scientists are using other peoples money to do their research I do think it is their responsibility to get the word out, if they want to hire a specialist to take care of it then that sounds even better, but is the cost of PR work for various projects taken into account when they decide the budget?

    Let’s say Caledonian is right and it shouldn’t be the scientists responsibility for this, the problem with that is nobody else seems to be stepping up and saying it is their responsibility. How do you suggest it should work Caledonian? If scientists aren’t supposed to promote their ideas then how is anyone going to learn about them in the first place? How can you blame society for not understanding the importance of science when you have just said the people that do recognize it aren’t supposed to inform society?

    You can say it’s not so-and-so’s job as much as you want, but if they are the ones suffering and no-one else seems to be doing anything about it then it is their job at that point whether they like it or not.

  15. #15 Caledonian
    January 10, 2008

    How can you blame society for not understanding the importance of science when you have just said the people that do recognize it aren’t supposed to inform society?

    You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. The responsibility for hydration ultimately rests with the horse.

  16. #16 apy
    January 11, 2008

    I do not understand your response. Your previous suggestions implied you should not even lead the horse to the water, as that analogy seems to suggest scientists should promote their ideas (Society being the horse, cowboy being scientists, water being importance of the research). Now you are saying that they should promote their ideas but they cannot make people find it important, which I agree with. So what is your reasoning? If that is not what you intended with that response could you please use a less ambiguous analogy.

    You also did not suggest who should be promoting various scientific research to the public.

  17. #17 Caledonian
    January 11, 2008

    “The horse isn’t drinking! The scientists have to do a better job of leading it!”

    What the scientists have to do is their job. If they become popularizers of science instead, who will do the science?

  18. #18 apy
    January 11, 2008

    You are dodging the question. Your response does not have any relevance to my original post. I plainly said it is the responsibility of scientists to get the word out, but I also said if that involves hiring a PR agency to do it, that is fine and probably better, leaving them free to do their science. But you have said scientists shouldn’t even be leading them to water, so who do you think should be doing the leading? You also seem to be making the assumption that the horses have been lead to the water, which seems to clearly not be the case as most people hardly have any idea what is going on in science these days (in the US), much less being able to accept or reject its importance.

    Is your argument that scientists have promoted their ideas to the best of their ability and nobody cares? Or are you saying scientists shouldn’t be doing this in the first place so the point is moot? If your point is the latter: again, who should be doing the leading?

  19. #19 Caledonian
    January 11, 2008

    You are dodging the question. Your response does not have any relevance to my original post.

    No, but the fault is mine: I should know better than to beat a dead horse.

  20. #20 apy
    January 11, 2008

    I’m unsure why you are resistant to stating your stance clearly rather than using horse metaphors.

  21. #21 Kaleberg
    January 13, 2008

    Sorry, but it’s the job of scientists to popularize science and build a constituency in support of scientific research. Yes, a professional PR team can help, but the first piece of advice they will give you is to get one of your more articulate scientists out there and talking about his or her work. The science may be attractive, but there is nothing like an enthusiastic scientist to make the human connection.

    There have been many effective science popularizers over the years – Edison, Franklin, Pasteur, Hawkings, Einstein, Sagan, Ley, Perrin and the list goes on. Most of them were effective scientists as well. Yes, popularizing science can cut research productivity, but not popularizing science can also cut research productivity when research is not funded for lack of supporters.

  22. #22 baley
    March 15, 2008

    It would be an excellent idea to inform the public about the details of these projects. But don’t think that will be enough.
    In the internet there are tons of halfwits that claim all sort of devices or crazy theories that challenge (in their views) the science community (which they don’t usually are part of). Most of them are just halfwits but occasionally there are other that seem respectable but they damage the reputation of projects like ITER.

    In the thermonuclear fusion case the Focus Fusion and Dr. Bussard (EMC2) have all openly criticize ITER for taking money out of their so-called reasonable fusion project (see the google tech video). For all I know it could very well be reasonable and not a hoax but the fact of the matter they haven’t achieved anything significant or published at all. Those scientist are acting like the worst kind of politicians instead of scientists …

    And that news are published as news in numerous blogs, news sites from people that don’t really know what they are quoting. It’s easy to see how readers can get the wrong idea about big science.

    I guess you need a plasma Physicist bloger in scienceblogs!

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