Funding Crises

By JoAnne Hewett | September 13, 2005 3:14 pm

The chronic shortage of funds is revealing itself – everywhere I look. From the big stuff to the small things.

The Army Corps of Engineers project to shore up the New Orleans levees was underfunded, and the project was stretched out. Had the project been completed in a timely fashion, the levees might have held. Or they might not have – we’ll never know.

The funds for FEMA were cut and it was demoted from a cabinet position and folded into the Dept of Homeland Security. We all know what happened next.

On my first day back at SLAC last week, home from Aspen, I attended two meetings. One to determine if we had enough funds to cover our graduate students this year; and the second degenerated into a discussion of whether we need to cut back the SLAC Summer Institute due to lack of funds. And yet we all hear the rhetoric that this country needs more trained scientists.

My next day back, I flew to DC on a bankrupt airline. I almost missed my flight while standing in line to check my bag because the airline no longer staffs enough personnel to wait on its customers in a timely fashion.

While in DC, I attended a 2-day meeting as a member of a subpanel of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel. Our first task is to advise the DOE and NSF as to whether the two main collider programs in the US should be terminated early. The Tevatron Collider at Fermilab and the B-Factory at SLAC. Both are at the height of their productivity, although admittedly, both have had some problems. The hope is that any money saved can be used to start new initiatives rather than disappearing into a budget blackhole. But how can we be sure? From here on, my lips (and typing fingers) are sealed until our report is finished and made public later this Fall.

The Nuclear Physics community has already been asked to make a choice between the newly built Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which is running well, and the newly built, well-run Jefferson National Laboratory.

The fusion community is squabbling over the choice of joining International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) (at a level of 10% of the project cost) or funding their domestic program.

Today, from where I sit, it’s not just a matter of the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots; the very fabric of this country is shredding apart.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    The great industrial labs run by the telecom and computer corporations were dying several years ago.

  • collin

    Today, from where I sit, it’s not just a matter of the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots; the very fabric of this country is shredding apart.

    While I agree that the state of things is a bit depressing, that’s being a bit melodramatic, isn’t it? It may be a bit trite to say, but to find cases of a country who’s fabric is being ripped apart, I look to countries like Haiti and Uganda. Or possibly to Indonesia, where their tsunami was a much more devestating disaster in a country much less equipped to handle it, even with our FEMA blundering.

    First, a bankrupt airline might be an inconvenience, but it’s nothing more than capitalism at work. As for the funding situation, what you describe is terrible. But I find it difficult to be so distraught over the state of the nation when as a country we have so much money to throw around that people get upset when multi-billion dollar programs which the general public doesn’t understand get questioned.

    Sure, basic science should be better funded. As a recipient of said funding, I’m all for it. Sure, money is being poorly allocated, but while in the case of the N.O. levees, this poor allocation might be extraordinarily disastarous, it’s not like our government has ever been a model of benighted budget policy. And quite frankly, as a student at Fermilab, I question the monetary benefit of continuing the program full tilt into the LHC era. It’s not to say the Tevatron can’t do very good and important physics, but it may be that the most useful physics will be done in smaller, more efficient, and more innovative collaborations not operating in discovery mode. But it’s not obvious the lab sees it that way.

    I will say, I think the suggestion to cut off RHIC is a very poor one. I’m rather impressed by their results and have a hunch that they’ll turn to be very important some day.

    Anyway, when the HEPAP report comes out, I’d be very interterested to hear your point of view on it, regardless of the content.

  • JC

    Hopefully the feds will not resort to extreme measures such as trying to solve all of the world’s problems by printing up more money. A Weimar Germany style hyperinflation would surely completely destroy today’s society, into something possibly worse than New Orleans and/or Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • collin

    Hopefully the feds will not resort to extreme measures such as trying to solve all of the world’s problems by printing up more money. A Weimar Germany style hyperinflation would surely completely destroy today’s society, into something possibly worse than New Orleans and/or Iraq and Afghanistan.

    *sigh* I’m pretty confidant the Federal Reserve is smarter than that…

  • JC

    Hey you never know about the folks running the central banks and/or treasury departments?

    The incompetence during the late 1970′s caused inflation to spike up to 20% per annum at its worse in America towards the end of the Carter administration. For a period of time, the Treasury Department actually had to issue US Treasury debt securities in foreign currencies because hardly anybody would buy any of the debt securities denominated in American dollars.

    In other countries it was even worse, such as inflation spiking up to 600% per annum at its worse in Israel during the mid 1980′s.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    In the bankruptcy of the airlines, there is government intervention at work, too. E.g., Government didn’t let some airlines fail after 9/11, which would have let the remaining airlines be able to hold fares steady, instead of dropping them further.

  • collin

    The incompetence during the late 1970′s caused inflation to spike up to 20% per annum at its worse in America towards the end of the Carter administration.

    Sure, but Weimar Germany hit 3.25 million percent per month. That’s qutie a difference. Again, I’m pretty confidant the Federal Reserve can keep us from a Weimar Germany-esque hyperinflation.

    n the bankruptcy of the airlines, there is government intervention at work, too. E.g., Government didn’t let some airlines fail after 9/11, which would have let the remaining airlines be able to hold fares steady, instead of dropping them further.

    Yeah, but had the government not stepped in, it’s possible, Southwest would currently have a monopoly… I’m certainly not capable persuasively arguing the merits of the decision to keep the airline industry afloat after 9/11. My only point was that saying that an airline can’t afford to staff enough employees to take care of their customers in a timely fashion is evidence for the very fabric of society being shredded is a bit over the top.

  • Chris W.

    Maybe JoAnne’s examples are a bit precious, but when you look at the overall budget situation, and then factor in the ramifications of Katrina* and the energy situation, we have big problems, folks.

    (* from the Christian Science Monitor, via VPR.)

  • spyder

    Well, there are always creative ways to finance in the insanity. For example, late Friday(making sure the story got out no sooner than Monday) the NRC approved a temporary nuclear waste repository for 44,000 tons of radiactive materials, on an indian reservation a mere 45 miles directly upwind from Salt Lake City. The reservation doesn’t have a casino, and due to extensive cutbacks in the BIA budget and USDA commodities, the tribal members are suffering from terrible poverty. Their solution is to lease their vacant land to a private corporation to store nuclear waste. The old adage: “out of sight out of mind” seems to apply here; i suspect that oversight and monitoring will be at an all time low around that part of the realm. The fabric may not be shredding so much as becoming more toxic.

  • collin

    …we have big problems…

    Oh, I don’t disagree. And I do think the article you link to gets it generally right. The budget is in miserable shape, and if we’re lucky Katrina will force the current administration and congress into rethinking its patently absurd pork barrel politics. Now, I have little hope of this actually happening, but the US is still (by far) the wealthiest country in the world, and there’s no sign of that changing soon, Katrina or not, pork barrel politics or not, China and globalization or not. I just think posts like this need this sort of perspective. Things today might not be as good as things were last month, or before Bush arrived, but that doesn’t mean we’re toeing the line on some cliff of great despair, sure to fall off, never to recover.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Strange things can happen to a country when its people don’t think their kids will be better off than themselves….

  • JC

    Arun,

    Could you elaborate further?

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    That Pandora’s box item, hope, is a essential of life. It is best when it is rational. One should not have to evade reality in order to be optimistic. If reality doesn’t provide it, then people turn to religion, astrology and the like to find cause for optimism.

  • Adam

    Collin:

    I can’t see a strong argument for the support given to the airlines after 11/9, particularly given that many of their problems predated that event. SouthWestern would, in any case, have been prevented from achieving monopoly by the purchase of competitors, wouldn’t it, in the normal way? It’s not as if the support achieved anything very much anyhow, if you look at the fates of those airlines since the bail-out. I don’t see capitalism as a competitive environment until you get really big, at which point you have an effective gun to government’s head. The Chrysler bailout of long ago was a mistake too, I think. Hopefully, GM won’t be the lucky recipient of a large wodge of taxpayer’s money to keep them afloat, either.

  • LM

    Looks like you’ll have to serve Charles Shaw at the next Slac Summer Institute. I doubt if most of the grad students will notice the difference.

  • collin

    Adam — my comment about Southwest was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek… But I will certainly defer to you on this point…

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  • Alexey Petrov

    >It’s not to say the Tevatron can’t do very good and important
    >physics, but it may be that the most useful physics will be done in
    >smaller, more efficient, and more innovative collaborations not
    >operating in discovery mode.

    Hmm… like BTeV? …
    It’s very unfortunate that flavor physics gets “voted off the island” in the US HEP program…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Folks – interesting set of comments. After sitting through 4 days of meetings on possibly pulling the plug on the major US experiments in high energy physics (on which there are about 1500 collaborators, world-wide), I reserve the right to be melodramatic. No, it is not the most pressing issue in the world today, but it is systemic.

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