Why the Science Funding in the Stimulus Bill Might Be a Problem

So I have been reading over the details of the stimulus bill that is working its way through Congress. Now I grant that this is a rough draft and may be substantially modified in the process of passage, but one particular sentence got me thinking:

Transform our Economy with Science and Technology: We need to put scientists to work looking for the next great discovery, creating jobs in cutting-edge-technologies, and making smart investments that will help businesses in every community succeed in a global economy. For every dollar invested in broadband the economy sees a ten-fold return on that investment.

·$10 billion for science facilities, research, and instrumentation.

·$6 billion to expand broadband internet access so businesses in rural and other underserved areas can link up to the global economy.  (Emphasis mine.)

I am as in favor of increases in scientific funding as the next guy.  I have repeatedly argued that scientific funding over the past couple years should have been increased to keep up with scientific inflation.

But let's not mince words:  the infusion of such a large quantity of money into NIH and NSF over so short a period would be a disaster of Biblical proportions. 

I make two assumptions in the above statement:  1) The stimulus bill will provide funding over a short-period.  (The period I heard was over two years.)  2) The high level of funding increases for scientific agencies will not be maintained after the end of the stimulus bill. 

(If these assumptions are wrong, then I am more than willing to amend my statement.  However, from what I know at this moment, I consider them reasonable.)

I am highly dubious of a spending bill like this one because I simply cannot conceive of how we will spend all that money.  How do they intend to distribute that money over such a short period:  paying down to the 50% line in NIH grants? 

To get some perspective on this, the current NIH budget is about 28 billion dollars.  That money is divided between intramural research at the Institutes (about 20%) and extramural research at other institutions through grants (80%).  Now let's assume that NIH doesn't get all the 10 billion.  Let's assume that NSF gets half and NIH gets half.  That 5 billion constitutes a 17% increase in the NIH budget! 

Even if they could get all that money out the door, think of how much of it will be wasted.  I absolutely agree that funding lines have been particular spare of recent years, but part of the reason there are funding lines is to filter out poorly conceived experimental designs.  Many grants that go to NIH need to rewritten and rethought.  I should know.  The first time I sent in my fellowship it got rejected.  It had numerous unclear passages.  I rewrote it, and now it is getting funded.  A marked lowering in the payline for grants -- particularly over a short period -- will result in more good grants getting money, but it will also result in a great many bad ones getting money as well. 

But there is a bigger problem with such a huge infusion of capital.  It would also cause a huge market bubble in scientific education that would displace many students.  I have argued before that one of the problems with the Clinton doubling of NIH funds followed by the relative stagnation of funds under the Bush administration was how NIH-funded institutions accomodated to the new funding.  Science departments realized that they were flush, so they admitted more graduate students and hired new faculty members.  These faculty members didn't have trouble getting grants while the funding was still increasing.  New buildings were initiated, and long-term projects started. 

But then at the end of the Bush administration funding stagnated and soon all of those extra graduate students had trouble getting jobs.  All of those new faculty are now struggling to make ends meet.  Because the decision to enter scientific education represents a commitment of decades, huge changes in funding causes equally huge dislocations in people's lives.

If you increase scientific funding by a large amount in one or two years, I predict a very similar thing will happen. Do we really sincerely believe that this level of funding will be maintained in the future?  What with looming huge deficits, I really, really doubt it.  Thus, this single infusion of capital will probably do more harm than good.

Instead I would much rather that they put some line in the bill that scientific funding would increase at a predictable rate -- something like 2 percent plus inflation -- for the next ten years.  That would accomplish the desired goal -- more science -- without the up and down of a science bubble.

Like many of you, I believe that scientific funding is absolutely imperative to our future economic growth.  I am highly dubious that the stimulus package will accomplish anything other than a delay in our economic downturn, but I really do agree that long-term investments like infrastructure, clean energy, and research funding represent valid uses of the taxpayer's money.   

What deeply concerns me is that money allocated to science in this way will not accomplish its desired goal and may actually cause more harm than good.

UPDATE: I have been reading the comments, and I am excited that I have hit a nerve with people.

But let me clarify my argument in light of them.

1) Sorry about not reading the fine print.  It will be 3 billion for NSF, and 2 billion for NIH.  I actually don't think that these smaller numbers changes my essential argument because these are one time increases in funding. 

What is going to happen when funding goes back down to its original level?  People are going to get fired.  Grants are going to run out.  And new buildings are going to go unused.  Any increase large enough to change people's behavior will have precisely these effects.  And, seriously, if you were entering graduate school on this increase in funding only to leave it into a job market that is smaller than the one you entered...well, that would be quite a rude awakening.

2) I have never disputed that science needs more funding and that the paylines at present are horrendously low.  What I dispute is that one-time increases over short periods constitute an effective use of the tax-payers money. 

3) Does anyone know a good measure for scientific inflation?  I am afraid I don't.

4) An alternative scenario is that research centers will not change their behavior as a result of these grants because they know that the money is temporary.  Say you are a Departmental chair, and you are looking at the possibility of new hires.  Well if you know that funding is going to get better briefly and then get worse then you are less likely to change your behavior.

In a way this is similar to what happened with the Bush tax rebates, and I suspect these tax cuts will have a similar effect.  Because people know that it is a temporary thing, they don't change their behavior by increasing spending.  They know that they are going to need that money in the future.  This is an idea put forth by Milton Friedman called the permanent income hypothesis.

But see how this is also a barrier to the effectiveness of the stimulus bill in producing more science.  If scientists do not respond to the bill by endeavoring on greater projects because they know it is temporary, the amount of science done will not increase. 

5)  What you think of this argument rests on the following decision:  whether you think a temporary increase in funding is better than no increase at all.  I have tried to illustrate the ways in which a temporary increase is destructive.

But most of us would, I think, agree that the optimal scenario is a long-term commitment by Congress for scientific funding.
  If I were a director of one of the Institutes, that is what I would argue for.  Frankly, I just see this sort of brief increases as a chicken*^%& way to kick the issue down the road.  If we don't tie them down now, their commitment will evaporate as budget deficits rise.


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Ummm. You do realize that gov't funded science includes more than NIH/NSF, right? I haven't seen the particulars, but I'm betting NIH/NSF aren't likely to have worry too much about this "problem". Many of the science agencies have been operating for a decade or more with flat or decreasing funding and have thus put off capital projects. Such a boost could clear some of that backlog.

You didn't read down into the fine detail. There's only 3 billion for NSF and 2 billion for NIH (of which 25 % is for NIH capital improvements). The rest goes to other agencies.

· National Science Foundation: $3 billion, including $2 billion for expanding employment opportunities in fundamental science and engineering to meet environmental challenges and to improve global economic competitiveness, $400 million to build major research facilities that perform cutting edge science, $300 million for major research equipment shared by institutions of higher education and other scientists, $200 million to repair and modernize science and engineering research facilities at the nation's institutions of higher education and other science labs, and $100 million is also included to improve instruction in science, math and engineering.

· National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research: $2 billion, including $1.5 billion for expanding good jobs in biomedical research to study diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, and heart disease - NIH is currently able to fund less than 20% of approved applications - and $500 million to implement the repair and improvement strategic plan developed by the NIH for its campuses.

Scroll down about 1/3 of page to "Scientific Research" at this link: http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/news/2009/01/summary_american_recovery…

"I am highly dubious of a spending bill like this one because I simply cannot conceive of how we will spend all that money."
Build research facilities. Do big projects (like cancer genomes or mouse knockout projects) that we can mine data from for years to come. *Give back the % cuts from existing R01s* (given that it's not 10 billion, but really only 1.5 billion, it works out to much more like 5%, which is about what they cut off of individual R01s... if R01s are the bulk of the budget, you can probably get rid of the money just like that). Give a little bit to career development awards to keep people in the pipeline. Build in a 'bridge funding' that can be set aside if not enough people desperately need extra cash to keep their lab from going under (I know, it's probably against some kind of congressional mandate to save for a rainy day *sigh*). Increase the paylines a little bit to get people optimistic again. Remake research buildings to have greater energy efficiency/modern layouts (better lab space + pays for itself in the long run + jobs now = sounds good to me).
The more it's spread around, the less hard hit any given area will be when it goes away. And if we can, you know, view it as an *investment* rather than "oh our new budget!" there should be wise ways to take care of it.
Give it to me!

Given that for the past 8 years NIH has been knocking 18% off the top of nearly every grant award given (leaving most projects underfunded and scrambling to constantly do more with less), I think the worry is completely unfounded. (a) An 17% percent increase would get us to a point where we are fully funding the awards they are giving---not even adding substantially. (b) more importantly, we are a LONG way from the 50th percentile. For the past several years, we have seen colleagues getting their grants rejected who were in 9th percentile. A 17% increase would not return us to Clinton era funding, it would just restore some sanity.

By Matthew Christian (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

First, I agree that jumpstarting a bunch of grants and then not being able to follow through would be bad and unwise.

However, the part of NSF that funds my work (Div. of Materials Research) has had an effective budget *cut* of around 15% over the last three years because of this "continuing resolution" nonsense. Proposal success rates in many programs are at or under 10-15% throughout NSF. NSF's total budget is around $6B, and the research increment mentioned in the stimulus bill draft is $2B. Using those proportions, the success rates could go from 10-15% to 15-20%. That's not exactly scraping the bottom of the barrel. I would guess that these numbers are intended to get back to the planned levels authorized in the America Competes initiative - levels that were never appropriated because of the political mess of the last several years.

One more point. It would be great if the government could set in place a planned (inflation + 2%) rule. They might even pass a bill authorizing such a thing. Unfortunately, it's meaningless since appropriations of actual funds happen annually. It's annoying and cripples the ability of the US to participate in long-term projects both at home and internationally, but that's the way the federal government allocates money.

I am in agreement about the nee for sustainability, especially for the scientific jobs market. One of my acquaintences (who will go unnamed) had been a world class mathmatician. There was no way I could get him interested in training young scientists. He had finished grad school, just when the cold war ended, and all new research funding went to the Russian Nuclear scientists (to prevent them selling their expertise to aspiring nuke powers). So he knew how absolutely heartless our system is. Promise exciting careers, if only you work super hard. Then after a decade of hard work, they take away the punch bowl.

So, if there are a few major capital expentitures that will serve for a long period of time, that is OK. But, we need to avoid boom/bust cycles. Otherwise no-one will want to do the sustained hard work needed to gain qualification.

Normally, my response to a windfall, to is NOT spend the windfall, but rather to invest it in an income producing fund. Then use the investment returns (not the principal) for ongoing perpetual funding. But, that is completely counter to the stimuls aspect.

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