Pocket Change

By Sean Carroll | May 26, 2008 5:17 pm

I made a chart! This is the kind of thing you do when you return from a long trip and are jet-lagged.


These are the 2008 research budgets for physical sciences, in billions of dollars, for the main funding agencies in the U.S.: the Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Science Foundation. For helpful comparison purposes, I’ve also plotted the $14.9 billion that has been misplaced over the course of our reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Not the cost of the war itself, which has been over $500 billion so far and will be well over a trillion when all is said and done. Just the funds that were … lost. Embezzled, whatever. Labels are so confining.

Readers with interests outside science funding are welcome to suggest their own comparisons.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Science and Politics
  • Sili

    I want to cry.

    And I’m not even American.

  • http://xeny.net Jason Grossman

    At least the $14.9B was not COMPLETELY wasted if it lead to this lovely graph!

  • Katey

    You definitely should put quotes around the lost.

    “LOST” IN IRAQ fits so much better!

  • Bluh

    Misleading…Iraq is a 6 year number, the others are 1 year figures.

  • Arun

    :( :-( :( :-(

  • http://www.smbc-comics.com/ Zach Weiner

    How about the Superconducting Super Collider? Even its ballooned budget was a mere 12 billion dollars.

  • Counterfly

    You should also put NIH funding on there… oh wait, that wouldn’t make for a nice monotonic graph illustrating that…war spending is lossy at the 2% level!

  • Moshe

    Look at the bright side, the next few presidents will learn their lessons: they will shy away from corruption and will run the country efficiently, they are going to be decent and hard working, and likable to boot.

    (at least in comparison)

    (unless they learn the lesson that US presidents backed up by their party are monarchs for all intents and purposes).

  • John Merryman
  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    As we speak, fugitive Iraqi physicists are preparing to fire up their own, black market-funded, homemade LHC…

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    p.s. Why is it that the 4.1 block fails to reach the 4 gradation on the Y axis?

  • http://verywide.net/ Moody834

    @Lab Lemming’s question, “Why is it that the 4.1 block fails to reach the 4 gradation on the Y axis?”



    “There’s an old saying at the DoE — I know it’s at the DoD, probably at the DoE — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

  • http://www.builtonfacts.com Matt

    I’m all for science funding (it pays my bills!), but it’s not necessarily a totally fair comparison. Lost money in Iraq is a drop in the Iraq war budget – but also the Iraq war is a pretty small part of federal spending. Even at about $100b/year, Iraq is about 5% of federal spending. In fact, total military spending by the US is only around 1/5th of the total federal budget, Iraq and Afghanistan appropriations included.

    In an interesting coincidence, the total amount of pork-barrel earmarks is of about the same size (though somewhat larger) as the waste you mention – $18.3 billion in FY ’08. I’d love to see that redirected toward something useful.

  • michael s pierce

    p.s. Why is it that the 4.1 block fails to reach the 4 gradation on the Y axis?

    perspective. Notice that the graduated back “wall” is not flush with the back side of the columns.

  • Danny

    My deepest greetings to Sean! Brilliant text, as always. Just to mention, btw, that I really liked your article in the SciAm about The arrow of time, but I would leave a comment about that specifically.

    This is very serious, I guess. Human civilisation is spending so much for waging wars instead of funding science! How sad, how tragic. Why is it so? I can’t tell. Are we just one paranoid culture? Likely so.

  • eric gisse

    The horrors of perspective geometry – not everything is where you expect it to be.

    Unfortunately, the Iraq column is still bigger than all the other columns.

  • Anchor

    Bluh: What’s misleading? The AS-STATED COMPARISON between KNOWN “misplacements” over the last 6 years and the KNOWN investments to DOE, NASA and the NSF for 2008?

    Heck, even you caught it, right?

    Want to see how tall that column on the right grows as soon as you tally all the $500b? It’s over 33 TIMES TALLER STILL. Around 70 TIMES taller when “all is said and done”. Consider it spent as of NOW (which is usually how most struggling families have to figure it: a budget that’s already been spent in the future is money that doesn’t exist anymore in the present). It’s the price of inertia. Right NOW it’s over a trillion. One can use the past-tense for it: “It is spent”. It WAS “spent” 6 years ago when this theater was embarked upon and PURCHASED.

    Consider what’s actually been purchased. Like, say, how much more secure we are against the nasties (or whatever) per dollar spent. Look at the price as a function vs our present and future security. (Oh, and how much EXTRA will it cost to calm down an over-agitated world to pre-2001 levels, etc.).

    What was that about “misplacement”? Embezzled”? “Lost”? Or are we really that friggin’ crazy?

  • http://http//scienceblogs.com/pontiff Dave Bacon

    “In fact, total military spending by the US is only around 1/5th of the total federal budget”

    Only is a curious choice of words here.

  • Costanza

    Re #8
    Moshe, I’m glad you included the qualifier. My reaction was along the lines of, “WHAT??!!? Have you even PERUSED the history of the American presidency?”

    Unfortunately, it often happens that the President can get away w/ a great deal and do a great deal of damage even when opposed by an (ostensibly) “hostile” Congress. This is a direct consequence of the development of the “professional politician” (something not foreseen by Madison et al in the 18th century).

  • Elliot

    How about a bar for money “wasted” on NMD. I think the running tab is about 60 billion since 1983 but that could be short. For those who don’t know NMD is Nuclear Missile Defense (formerly known as Star Wars) that has been completely debunked by reputable scientists but “duck and cover cold war paranoia” has prevailed and we keep spending on a system that not only will not work but encourages a new arms race with Russia.


  • Dylan Thurston

    To be fair to the embezzlers, the $15B is an aggregate amount while the budgets for NASA, etc. are yearly. To get a fair comparison, you should divide by the length of time involved, approx. 5 years. So rest assured: less money is being lost to graft in Iraq than goes to your favorite funding agency!

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    A new arms race means more $$ for nuclear engineers, rocket scientists, metallurgists, geologists, etc.

    Just ’cause it is good for a flavor of science that you don’t like doesn’t mean that it is bad for science.

    After all, the arms race with the Russians is what got us to the moon and our robots all over the solar system.

    From the net SciTech funding point of view, building bombs is far preferable to food stamps.

  • Elliot


    No need for new technology, just MIRVs and infrared decoys on rockets. No new research. Just more weapons, uncertainty, and risk of terrorist theft and proliferation.

    Not a mature or fruitful policy for the world’s leading superpower.


  • puzzled

    “In fact, total military spending by the US is only around 1/5th of the total federal budget, Iraq and Afghanistan appropriations included.”

    About 60% of the federal budget is mandatory spending – legal obligations of the government such as interest on the debt, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Military spending is about 60% of discretionary spending – now that’s something.

  • http://thepoorman.net The Editors

    Labels are so confining.

    The word you are searching for is ‘liberated’. Use of other words implies that you would be happier if Saddam Hussein was still in power and swan-diving into the $14.9 billion like Scrooge McDuck.

  • http://ferrocement.com Garrett Connelly

    Military spending is about 60% of discretionary spending – now that’s something.

    It is often pointed out that the U.S. spends about as much as the rest of the world combined for war department budgets.

    As a young graduate student in the late 1960’s my thesis covered the impending collapse of the USSR due to excessive military spending, pollution and spiraling costs of surveillance.

    Remember when the USSR disappeared from the news? It was quick.

  • Robbie Preston

    Something that many of us forget is that a significant amount of basic research that is eventually used for military-related applications is paid for by DOE, NASA, and the NSF.

    So while it doesn’t qualify as ‘lost’ in the Iraq misadventure, some of the money we spend on DOE, NASA, and NSF does seed some of the products we use to conduct our military misadventures.

  • Pingback: É tudo uma questão de prioridades «()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


See More

Collapse bottom bar