David Goldston, writing in Nature, echoes a point I have been trying to make about the science provisions of the economic stimulus package. He lists some reasons why scientists should be wary of getting our funding this way:
First, being included in the stimulus measure could turn science spending into a political football. In general, federal support for science is something pretty much everyone in both parties agrees should be maximized, even if they haven’t always followed through by providing the cash. The fight over the stimulus bill could erode that consensus, creating problems for the future. There are indications that this may already be happening. In a 24 January radio address criticizing the stimulus legislation, House Republican leader John Boehner (Ohio) complained: “There’s $6 billion for colleges and universities, many of which have multibillion-dollar endowments.” Interestingly, he did not describe any of this spending as ‘science’, perhaps fearing that might make it sound more legitimate. But then again, Obama did not mention research when describing the stimulus plan in his radio address the same day, choosing to focus on more traditional projects that would affect more Americans directly.
Second, a stimulus bill usually consists mostly of one-off projects. The idea is to inject money into the economy now that will not create long-term obligations that could swell the deficit after the economy recovers. But that’s not the hope for science spending. Science proponents, both inside and outside the government, want any increases for science agencies to become part of the agencies’ base spending levels, to be built on in future years. Otherwise, a brief boom could be followed by a prolonged bust, which is more or less what happened to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) earlier this decade.
But there’s no guarantee that the science money will be treated differently from other stimulus spending; it’s not clear whether it will end up being a down payment on future increases. The first indication of the future won’t come for another month or two when Obama releases his proposed budget for fiscal 2010, which will begin on 1 October. Hedging its bets, the House did include some money for NIH grants for the next fiscal year in the stimulus legislation, but it did not do that for any other agency, and the second year of NIH funding may not make it into the final bill.
The third, and perhaps most troubling issue, is that inclusion in the stimulus bill means the science money must be awarded with unusual, perhaps even reckless, speed. With the exception of the NIH, research agencies under the House bill will have to spend the funds within 120 days. That means that the National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, would have to allocate $3 billion — a 50% increase in its budget — in four months. As of last week, the NSF was still figuring out how it could do that — whether to make more awards in whatever grant competitions it happens to have ongoing when a bill is signed, whether to revive worthy proposals from past competitions that were rejected because of lack of funds or whether to try some other strategy.
The problem is magnified for new programmes such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which would receive $400 million in the House bill — one-third more than Congress had previously thought the agency needed to get started. The first decisions an agency makes tend to set its course for years to come. Forcing a new agency that doesn’t yet have staff to figure out how to have an impact on the nation’s energy problem and award a sizable amount of money in a few months is hardly the safest way to get going (see Nature 447, 130; 2007).
Moreover, spending under the stimulus bill will be under heightened scrutiny. The bill includes new watchdog and transparency provisions that will make any missteps easier to catch and more widely known. Federal science programmes are generally viewed as well managed — that’s one reason they are widely supported in Washington. Any mistakes made with stimulus money may well do disproportionate damage to agencies’ reputations, and mistakes are more likely with the unusual time pressure. Legislators may also press science programmes to have more immediate results because they have been designated as stimulus efforts. (Emphasis mine.)
I am as happy as everyone else to see Congress excited about giving us money, but like Goldston I think that an economic stimulus package is not a great way to go about it.
For starters, we are risking creating a market bubble in young researchers much like what happened in the Clinton and early Bush administration. Having graduate programs increase their size just to shrink again doesn’t benefit anyone — not young researchers, not programs, and not the public. Funding stability should be just as much a priority as funding size.
Second, I am highly dubious of the notion that the science provisions of this bill will effective as an economic stimulus. Science is a business with a huge upfront investment in education requiring highly specialized skills. Do we really believe that we can use this money to hire people off the street and thereby lower unemployment? And what will the American public think if we suggest that we can — and then fail to deliver? Science is essential for long-term growth of the economy, but it isn’t going to help much short-term. It is dishonest for us to suggest that science will be an effective stimulus, and we risk a backlash if we do.
Third, we can’t spend that much money both quickly and efficiently. Even after we get through the backlog of unfunded grants, there is going to be a lot of waste. As Goldston points out, all of that waste is going to be publicized eventually. If we end up funding even a little pseudoscience with this gush of money, we are going to pay for it in credibility. People will focus on the the minority of wasteful or misguided projects rather than the mostly good science.
What I want — what I think we should all ask for — is a decade-long commitment to scientific funding from Congress. While I understand scientists’ glee at finally getting out of the sparer years of the Bush administration, the stimulus package is not a good way to fund science and may end up doing more harm than good.
UPDATE: Science has more about the debate for how to appropriately and efficiently spend the stimulus money:
Agency officials say there are more than enough worthy ideas for putting the money to immediate use. But the trick will be to avoid a crash when the stimulus money dries up. For infrastructure projects, that means not letting capacity outstrip the government’s ability to support the researchers who will occupy the space. The challenge is even greater for grants, requiring a delicate balancing of veteran and first-time grantees, consideration of the impact on underrepresented groups, and avoiding a bolus of new grants that expire at the same time and trigger a flood of application renewals. Any mistakes in managing either pot, say scientists from both the previous and current Administrations, could destabilize the overall scientific enterprise.
“I do think that money of the magnitude being proposed can be spent on useful things,” says John Marburger, who headed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the entire tenure of President George W. Bush. “But it’s short-term money. The great danger is creating facilities that no one can afford to operate.”
Harold Varmus, who advised the Obama campaign and who was named co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology in December, makes the same point about research grants. “Not everybody understands that grants create an obligation,” says Varmus, a former U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) director. “So the base is crucial. Obama talked repeatedly during the campaign about gradual and consistent funding for science. Maybe part of this [stimulus] should go into the base.”
I recommend reading the whole article if you have access because they have specifics on the different House and Senate bills for each agency.
I was struck by the NIH specifics:
Acting NIH Director Raynard Kington says the agency has drawn up three ways to spend the grants’ portion of the windfall, which is $1.5 billion in the House version and $2.7 billion in the Senate. (Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) has proposed bumping the Senate number to $9.2 billion.) The first would be a new call for proposals involving “topics in which there have been scientific or technical challenges” that might yield quick results with a blast of cash. Researchers would apply for accelerated review for awards of up to $500,000 a year for 2 years. These challenge grants would fit well with NIH’s emphasis on new investigators and high-risk science, Kington says.
NIH would spend some of the stimulus money on standard investigator grants (R01s) that scored well in peer review last year but didn’t get funded. The catch: The money would last only 2 years instead of the usual 4 years. Finally, Kington says, NIH might also add to the size of the awards made to investigators whose requested budgets were cut or who can identify “related research areas that might be meritorious.” Again, however, the supplement would probably be for only a couple of years.
All of these strategies are aimed at avoiding what Kingston calls the “hard lesson” of the 5-year doubling that left grantees with what Marburger describes as “a gargantuan appetite” that NIH hasn’t been able to fill. “There will be great pressure [to use the stimulus money] to fund more R01s just as we currently fund them,” Kington says. “But we have to be careful that we do not do anything imprudent, and that includes setting ourselves up to have big commitments 2 years out” that can’t be met.
1) When have we ever been able to identify projects that might “yield quick results with a blast of cash”? All scientists would like to think that their research is right on the cusp of breathtaking leaps forward. That doesn’t mean it is true. It is nearly impossible to differentiate a priori which projects are going to work and which projects aren’t. And when it is possible, it certainly isn’t something that can be done in a rush.
Good science is many things, but quick isn’t one of them.
2) It sounds to me like “setting ourselves up to have big commitments 2 years out” is precisely what they are doing. The labs that get these $500,000/2 year grants will be undergoing huge increases in staff and equipment only for two years, only to be left hanging. Will further funding be forthcoming? We don’t know.
A much better idea would be funding the backlog of unfunded grants at $100,000 for five years. That or funding fewer grants for the full 4 years And even better idea — if Specter’s amendment passes — would be to divide this increase in budget of the next five years.
3) All the people concerned seem to be assuming that this level of funding will be maintained or increased in the future. That may be a fair assumption, but like any good scientist I think it is important to clearly state your assumptions. If this one turns out to be wrong, we are all going to be in a world of hurt.
4) It seems to me that the euphoria over new money has overwhelmed our reason. Everyone take a deep breath. We are trying to engineer the long-term health of science, and that requires thinking past this budget cycle.
5) I don’t understand why Obama’s general desire — quite justified — to get the stimulus money out the door should apply to this aspect of the bill. Trying to treat scientific funding like you are treating tax cuts or infrastructure spending is a bad fit. They are totally different types of enterprises.