Show Me the Pony

So, the President gave some sort of speech to a bunch of smart people yesterday (video, transcript), and hearts are a-flutter all over the science blogosphere, as President Obama promises great things for science:

We double the budget of key agencies, including the National Science Foundation, a primary source of funding for academic research, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which supports a wide range of pursuits - from improving health information technology to measuring carbon pollution, from testing "smart grid" designs to developing advanced manufacturing processes. And my budget doubles funding for the Department of Energy's Office of Science which builds and operates accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, high-energy light sources, and facilities for making nano-materials. Because we know that a nation's potential for scientific discovery is defined by the tools it makes available to its researchers.

Of course, it's worth remembering what I said on a similar occasion a few years ago:

[Y]eah, "double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years" sounds great. So does "If we reverse the polarity on the flux capacitor, we can generate an infinite amount of free energy, and a pony." I'll believe it when I see the pony.

Now, to be sure, I'm much more encouraged by Barack Obama saying good things about science policy than I am by George Bush saying good things about science policy. To this point, Obama seems to be taking the radical approach to governing of actually trying to enact the things he says he will enact. This is in stark contrast to Bush, who didn't give any indication of remembering what he said five minutes after he said it.

Still, it's a long way from a speech at the National Academy of Sciences to the authorization of grants. I'm hopeful that this President will follow through on his words, but I'm still going to wait until I see the pony before I make plans to go out riding.


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The President putting money in his budget is not unlike my sister as a little girl adding a pony to the shopping list my mom kept on the fridge. It's a request that the person with the power of the purse may or may not grant. Granted the President - Congress dynamic is more equal than the parent-child dynamic but unless someone sells Congress on this plan the chances of it happening are really only slightly better than the chance of my mother bringing a pony home from the grocery store.

Welcome to my world, where defense budget increases usually take 18 months to even begin to trickle down here-- and the first trickle is, "Here is a shoestring budget to do a proposal."

In general, while I was pleased with the speech (I finally watched it last night) and was very happy to see the research tax credit made permanent, I was a little curious to see where that 3% of GDP would be coming from and how it compares to expenditures now.

I also thought the digital health records was a rather nakedly political move, which, even if it does bear good results, was out of place in the speech. And then there was the pro forma "we're going to concentrate on math and science education," schtick which I think every president since Truman has mentioned with approximately the same negligible results.

Oh, and while I'm enthusiastic about energy research-- energy research would be on my top three list of broad categories for funding support-- I'm curious as to why ARPA-E wasn't folded into DARPA if it's so modelled off DARPA to begin with. Not outraged or opposed, just curious.

By John Novak (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

Yesterday my spanking-new U.S. patent No. 7,523,892 debuted which details a much-cheaper and quicker way to get loads to near-Earth orbit than what NASA ever dreamed of. At least my patent examiner agrees it will work because he understands what new materials like Nomex and advanced computers which are light enough to go airborne and control semi-chaotic actions make possible....Michael L. Cook

By mike cook (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink