Pure Pedantry

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.

Several comments:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 TomJoe
    February 6, 2009

    Any stimulus directed at science should be directed towards infrastructure. New facilities and improvements to current facilities would be a good direction for money, would hire construction workers immediately, and would benefit the scientific community for years to come. Just my two cents.

  2. #2 Lab Grab
    February 6, 2009

    I second TomJoe, walking the halls of many Univesities, and especially VA hospitals the equipment, building, and resource network is to the bone.

  3. #3 Jake Young
    February 6, 2009

    Actually I totally agree with the use of this for infrastructure, precisely because I don’t think that will cause the type of bubble in the size of programs I am worried about by funding a large number of new grants.

    Infrastructure would be better because it would make existing researchers more efficient.

    However, there are two things that I would point out about infrastructure. 1) Repairing old buildings is great, but building new buildings just to see them go unused (because other funding has failed to keep up) is another. 2) Infrastructure takes time. It takes time to appropriate and time to build. If our goal is to stimulate the economy, these projects need to be organized quickly. Doing things quickly implies a certain degree of waste.

  4. #4 MV
    February 6, 2009

    When it comes to infrastructure, they should allocate a good chunk of money to equipment grants for individual groups not just departments and hospitals as a whole. Also, some money should go to generic biochemistry development (2 years is a good time frame for a concerted effort to make tons of new antibodies e.g. at DSHB). Infrastructure does not just mean buildings.

  5. #5 Jim Hu
    February 7, 2009

    Manual trackback. I don’t completely agree with everything, but I think most of my disagreements are closer to quibbles (except perhaps my closing thought). I suspect that the boom-bust problem doesn’t just apply to Science, though, which may be related to the reports on how the stimulus attempts in Japan have not been successful.

    I’m not convinced that the whole thing is a good idea, or if it is, that it has to be rushed through quite as fast as its being pushed. Why not do it in pieces?

  6. #6 A
    February 7, 2009

    I say: Take what you can get, when you can get it.
    (And didn’t the good senators already take out science funding out of the stimulus package anyway?).
    If you can get more money now, you can at least pay your graduate student/postdoc/research engineer now, and keep him busy doing great science, rather than have him/her on the dole. And your lab will buy more stuff (reagents, instruments, computers…) which will keep the suppliers in business.

  7. #7 Jim Hu
    February 7, 2009

    According to this piece in the NYT the NIH part is actually a lot higher in the Senate bill than in the House.

  8. #8 yogi-one
    February 7, 2009

    From reading this, it sounds like the issue is prudent use of the money. That going to be a tough one.

    Those of us who have been advocating that science be more politically active may have just gotten more than we bargained for. Science suddenly is a political hot-button with individuals and groups with differing agendas competing for the pork.

    You will have entities in the university systems and private sectors throwing their weight around to position themselves to get the money for their own R&D.

    The scientific community was in a sense more unified under the Bushies because they uniformly got treated like an undesirable second-class. Now if all of a sudden a big pot ‘o gold is laid out in front of them, we’ll see all the different scientific interests split up and start pulling in different directions.

    Prudence can easily get thrown to the wind in such an environment.

  9. #9 Peter
    February 7, 2009

    I cannot disagree more with what you say. To begin with, the scientific infrastructure is crumbling. A one-time boost of 30% to the NSF budget would help universities update their equipment (lab and computers).

    You seem to be high-minded but to say “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” strikes me as extreme naivete. Neither party really understands or cares for science. The only reason money flows to NIH is because, ultimately, it feeds the politically connected big pharma industry and the medical industrial complex.

  10. #10 John Lawler
    February 7, 2009

    Funding for the sciences (NIH, NSF, NASA, energy) has been collapsing. There is a 5:1 return for investment in science R&D – it creates the high tech jobs through knowledge and progress that keeps the country moving, improves quality of life.

    A much higher % of funding should go to Science R&D.

  11. #11 MV
    February 7, 2009

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/07/stimulus.cuts/index.html

    Looks like NSF, NASA, and NIST are out of stimulus. Also looks like NIH is in but maybe I (or CNN) am missing that one.

  12. #12 Colin
    February 8, 2009

    I don’t know what all of you are talking about re: infrastructure.

    Buildings, lab space and such is a university affair, unaffected by federal spending (but affected by state spending) and actually most univeristies do ok in temrs of buildings because donating alumni like to donate to building projects their name can be put on.

    As for equipment: equipment purchases are not made by universities, or not often. They come out of grant money to individual labs and PIs. the stimulus package increases grant money. So it increases funds available for equipment purchases by individual labs. Universities do not get federal funding for infastructure.

    Moreover, although I work in Florida, I come from the UK. The UK has a tiny fraction of the science funding available in US. We work in cramped, ancient offices.

    Yet, world class science continues to come out of the UK. Flashy labs are not necessary – well trained scientists and grants to by essential equipment are.

  13. #13 Clark Goble
    February 8, 2009

    While I think science funding would be better to keep rather than half the stuff they are keeping I can also understand critics. The problem is that the bill really isn’t a stimulus bill at all but rather a “here’s a bunch of projects we want” bill. At least the science funding would be more likely to kick in the first year! Scientists can spend the money typically faster than infrastructure contracts will go out for bid. (With obvious exceptions for big ticket items that face at worse the same problems)

    That said I kind of wish the proponents of the stimulus bill ran it like the Keynsian model they claim it is. I don’t mind debating science spending and the like. But it just seems dishonest to put say NASA funding as part of a purported stimulus bill.

  14. #14 MV
    February 11, 2009

    Buildings, lab space and such is indeed a university affair but in many cases at least some money comes from overhead (esp. at Med Schools). So the point is to use NIH funds directly for such projects (yes, it would be a departure from
    status quo). Intramural NIH infrastructure is already paid for
    by the Fed so this would not be so radical. And I agree, the
    money should go to places where things are close to completion
    but are stalled for lack of money. New building projects in
    two years is insane.

    NIH also funds pure instrumentation grants. Bolster those, not research grants.

    And last but not least, fund one off projects which pay long
    term dividends (like antibody development). Things like this,
    that can be developed fast, and can be implemented on top
    of existing infrastructure with little cost should get
    priority from stimulus.

  15. #15 Stephen Magill
    February 13, 2009

    I think the science portion of the stimulus may make more sense if you view it as a way of keeping science healthy during the current recession. Universities are hiring less researchers because endowments are down (or for state schools, state budgets are strained). The danger is that the next two years’ worth of graduates will not be able to find research posts and will have to leave the world of research. This is bad for science. With short-term increased spending, these graduates could be hired at least as post-docs, enabling those who wish to stay in science to stay there until the economy / stock market / endowments recover. If recovery happens before the short-term funding runs out, we may not even get the “bust” effect that Jake describes.

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  17. #17 Stock Trading
    September 8, 2009

    There is a 5:1 return for investment in science R&D – it creates the high tech jobs through knowledge and progress that keeps the country moving, improves quality of life.

    Where do you get your figures from ?