As you know, I'll be leaving the US in the middle of the year to head up north to my native land where I'll be setting up my new lab.
Having lived in both the US and Canada, I am in a good position to evaluate both societies. My basic conclusion? America you have a lot to learn from your northern brothers and sisters. It is really frustrating being down here and listening to Americans (especially those on the right) dismiss the concept of public institutions. What do you end up with? A country that is rotting from within. Fortunately things may change for the better. Money from the upcoming federal stimulus legislation (if congress can get its act together, and if the packaged isn't slashed too drastically) will help rebuild public services and institutions. Included in this bill is a nice hefty increase in spending for science.
Meanwhile up north, it would seem that despite the fact that Canada's biggest trading partner is sick, Canadians are doing quite well. (Don't believe me? Just read what Fareed Zakaria had to say in the latest issue of Newsweek.) But as in the US, change may be afoot, but this time for the worse. Yes, the Canadian government has decided to cut funding for Science. So just as the Obama Administration is about to increase money for R&D, Canada takes a step backwards.
Here's what others have to say:
Nature:Cash concerns for Canadian scientists
Bayblab: Science and the 2009 Canadian Budget
Sandwalk: Harper Slashes Research in Canada
Sandwalk: A Message from Genome Canada
Genomicron: An open letter to American universities and agencies.
Where will your new lab be?
I don't think the US is suffering from a lack of public institutions; rather, the problems generally stem from the fact that public institutions are motivated by ideals, but implemented by politics, thus rarely fulfilling their goals. There's pretty much no way around this; politics makes the laws and public institutions, and politics is about compromise; compromise with 50 billion things on the agenda and a huge hierarchy of committees and overlapping spheres of authority generally means that ideals get neutered. Just look at things like Amtrak and the postal service as examples; they can't even break even, because misguided laws have broken their backs.
I'll be starting up at UofT July 1st: http://scienceblogs.com/transcript/2009/01/the_deed_is_done_1.php
Having lived in a nation where the public institutions function reasonably well, and one where they are sub-par, I would say that the major difference is that in the US, these organizations have come under a relentless attack by the right wing who doesn't believe in their worth or their capability. You echo their reasoning in your comment - not say that this isn't a fair criticism, but the answer is not to destroy these institutions, but to make sure that they work. One important criteria is that these institutions must be staffed and managed by professionals and not political cronies. What has occured is that through the action of the right under the banner of less government is good government, the institutions have become underfunded, staffed by under-payed individuals who are underqualified (the qualified ones having left for higher paying jobs in the private sector) and managed by political operatives (at least in the higher echelons).
We need to get stop attacking professionalism, we need to start finding ways to make these institutions work. As Obama correctly stated, the debate should not be whether "government is the answer", but "how do we make government work".
Missed that announcement earlier -- congratulations on the new gig! They're lucky to have you.