Science Budget Trouble Is Becoming a Habit

January 18th, 2008

Posted by: admin

While I completely agree with Dan Sarewitz’s criticism that science policy is often reflexively treated as only science budget policy, sometimes you need to talk about the budget. Over the holidays, the Democratic-led Congress continued to demonstrate its strong leadership and forceful action by rolling over to the Administration’s insistence final budget numbers for Fiscal Year 2008 (finally approved nearly three months into the year). While of a kind with other failures of Congressional leadership, the casualties of this compromise include the authorized doubling of research accounts at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (was there no hue and cry in Boulder?).

This doubling was constructed as a key part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, the COMPETES Act passed by Congress last year, and the continuing perception of the physical sciences as the mistreated younger sibling jealous of the doubling of NIH in the 1990s (and blissfully ignorant of the older sibling’s hard fall to earth once the growth rate returned to earth). Details can be found in a few places, including the blog of my colleagues at the Computing Research Association, and the always thorough AAAS analysis.

This marks the second consecutive fiscal year where the proposed increases outlined in the American Competitiveness Initiative were not fully funded (FY 2007 was funded at FY 2006 levels for nearly everything when both parties opted to not pass most of the appropriations bills). The doubling is off track, and I’m kind of surprised at the relative lack of outrage. Perhaps the timing has something to do with it (I was on vacation at the time, or I’d have posted earlier), or there may be a sense of resignation that while the House Science and Technology Committee is very supportive, there are plenty of other goals that crowd research funding out.

So, what to do?

Realistically, this particular problem is not a science policy problem so much as a budget policy problem. There was a time when budgets were actually passed on time, but recent years have seen an acceleration of the trend to the point where the FY 2008 appropriations were finally signed into law about 6 weeks before the FY 2009 requests will be released.

But there is an additional concern, independent of budgetary dysfunction. Research funding just isn’t considered important enough to sacrifice other things. While the comment writers are busy describing how irrational and out of touch the legislators are to not see research funding as important, let me suggest it’s those who would raise such criticisms as being out of touch. Following the traditional special interest model of advocating for research funding has shown results that are mixed at best. Other interests are better organized, or represent issues and needs that are seen as more important and/or easier to justify to constituents (even districts with military bases and top research institutions will make sure the troops get the money before the bench scientists).

A serious re-thinking of funding models and advocacy models for that funding would be worthwhile, even if it only served to highlight common assumptions made by science and technology advocates. The current arguments about economic competitiveness lack a sense of connection that would make it easier to support this funding. The increase in Ph.D. production takes time, and how can we effectively show that those new Ph.Ds contributed specific amounts to the Gross National Product? It might be easier to demonstrate more immediately how science and technology can be tools for achieving other policy goals. I think it would be more persuasive to policy makers to demonstrate that new science and technology programs helped retrain 30,000 displaced workers than to say that 30,000 new scientists and engineers narrow the gap between American and Indian scientists and engineers. We need something like an interdisciplinary approach to these problems in a policy sense.

While it may serve the standing of scientists and engineers to hold themselves apart when presenting their knowledge and advice, perhaps it is that separateness that contributes to this persistent marginalization. By engaging the potential of scientific and technological knowledge to fulfill other policy objectives the value of that work (and of funding that research) might be easier to support. Take the NSF’s broader impact criteria seriously. Sell the expert panel on the scientific merit, and sell the funders and the public on the broader impact. Collect the broader impact stories for your Congressional visit days, tailor them to the member’s district, show that person how science and technology help their other goals and get them re-elected. Craven? Perhaps, but reflective of the motivations behind decisions in government.

2 Responses to “Science Budget Trouble Is Becoming a Habit”

  1. Harry Haymuss Says:

    The current Administration seems bent on not only leveling all students to mediocre (i.e. by leaving no one behind: the corollary being no one gets ahead…) but replacing science with bible study. It’s cheaper that way; the better to fund the latest Crusade against Islam…

    Footnote – elect Huckabee and watch the Crusade go into overdrive…

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  3. bchaudry Says:

    A delayed Science budget policy problem is vital to the growing trend of the current fiscal year FY appropriations are being signed into law about 6 weeks before the next year FY requests release.