More on the Stimulus

By John Conway | January 27, 2009 4:45 pm

Two weeks ago the US House released their nascent version of the $825 billion stimulus bill, which later passed in committee and was introduced to the House floor yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Senate unveiled its version of the stimulus package, with a much more terse summary. Oddly, the section specifically mentioning science only talks about NSF and NASA:


National Science Foundation (NSF) Research: $1.4 billion in funding for scientific research, infrastructure and competitive grants.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): $1.5 Billion for NASA, including $500 million for Earth science missions to provide critical data about the Earth’s resources and climate.

What about the DOE Office of Science? NIH? NIST? NOAA? I surely hope that the next summary will call out items to the level the House summary did. But, further down, under Energy, we find

$40 billion to the Department of Energy for development of clean, efficient, American

Whoa. Suddenly, the DOE is not your daddy’s Atomic Energy Commission any more! (Or your grand-dad’s Office of Naval Research…) In fact, I winder just how many congresscritters really know the history of the DOE, that its 2008 $24.6 billion budget included

  • – $8.7 billion for energy programs, of which $4.4 billion is for science, and most of the rest is for actual energy projects, and
  • – $15.5 billion for weapons activities, of which $5.4 billion is for nuclear cleanup.

By my calculation, therefore, the non-weapons, non-basic-research part of DOE’s budget is less than 20% of the whole DOE program.

So what will this mysterious $40 billion for in the Senate plan be for? Do they seriously envision giving ten times the present budget to that portion of the DOE and say, “here, invent clean, efficient American energy”. I am going to guess that the “$40 billion” is going to augment the DOE Office of Science programs in basic research by something like the $1.9 billion in the House bill (of which $400 million was specifically tagged for energy research). But what about the other $38 billion?

Anyway it all boggles the mind. No doubt the so-called “Clean Coal” people will be all over this, as will the T. Boone Pickens compressed natural gas types, those who want enormous (and I mean freakin’ enormous – do the math) wind farms and the supporters of first- (ick) and second-generation biofuels. (I say “ick” because corn-based methanol is simply a big waste of resources). To me it seems that that “energy” is clearly the buzzword these days. (It will certainly be in the title of my next proposal, but with “high” in front of it.)

Two main areas of debate and discussion spring to my mind here. Firstly, I think that it is high time to merge the disparate funding agencies which support basic research into a cabinet-level Department of Science, rather than a dozen little agencies. This was discussed (and eventually dismissed) in the early Clinton years, the argument essentially being that “the more spigots the better.”

Secondly, we have the much more difficult question: Where will all this new, efficient, clean American energy actually come from? Presently we have in place systems for nuclear, hydro, solar, fossil, wind, and geothermal. Fossil fuels dominate by far in the US. It is interesting, in fact, to look at the DOE’s Energy Information Agency’s chart of where it all comes from and where it goes (as of 2007):

As you can see we are rather heavily dependent on coal, oil, and gas. I wonder if the average person on the street quite realizes just how deep we are into carbon based energy…

I am all for research into new approaches to energy, but we are going to have to be realistic about the basic underlying physics. And we had better fund basic research in physics in our universities if a new generation of physicists is going to emerge to develop new energy sources, and spend all these taxpayer dollars effectively.

We live in amazing times.

  • Jeff

    Let’s spend it all on string theory and SUSY/Higgs searches! That will surely reveal solutions to the energy crisis.

  • Count Iblis

    Where will all this new, efficient, clean American energy actually come from?

    Off-shore wind power. You can build so-called “power islands”. These islands have large areas below sea-level that can be flooded. Wind power is used to pump out sea water from the island. Hydro power is generated by letting the water flow into the island.

    This allows you to meet large peak demands at any time of the day.

  • John

    SUSY Higgs searches is a great way to train young, malleable minds, and teach them to think outside the box. Then they’ll realize there’s no money or jobs doing that, and they’ll invent some sort of new energy source, and make ten times what I do looking for the Higgs…

  • John

    How big would a 1 GW “power island” have to be, Count Iblis? How do you get the power to shore?

  • Count Iblis
  • Count Iblis

    The timesonline article contains a stupid mistake. Here is another source:

  • Jeff

    John, I would like to agree with you, except:

    (1) I think it’s unethical to train young scientists for careers in basic physics unless said young scientists are well-advised, a priori, about the rarity of such careers and the unlikelihood of success; and

    (2) A Ph.D. in Higgs-sector physics (or cosmology, or string theory, or what have you) does not prepare the young scientist to advance the science/technology of alternative energy. A better avenue would be an applied-science Ph.D. (e.g. in materials science, biology, condensed matter physics, etc.)

  • ccous

    I guess as folks who will receive money from this legislation, you are excited at the thought of what you can do with it.

    Here is a link to the bill: , and here is what I understand to be a partial listing of the spending:

    I think what concerns me the most is that this money does not exist. We don’t have it, so we have to borrow or print it, and I guess we are printing it these days although if someone can help to decipher that I would be grateful.

    Because this money does not exist, by that I mean it is not collected in Taxes before it is allocated by the Fed, it translates to a debt that must be paid starting this year.

    But we already have two massive debts: one is our total national debt, which is about 10.6 trillion already when you include that fact that we owe ourselves 4.1 trillion for Social Security, and the other is the looming total for projected expenditures of Medicare and Social Security that will exceed tax revenues by more then $40 trillion over the next 75 years[source is wikipedia: but you can get the budget here; you can read “A Citizen’s Guide to the 2007 Financial Report of the U.S. Government” for a short summery.

    We really are in a situation where more of the same behavior, spending money we don’t have, will continue to make things worse. We are heaping debt on ourselves and our children without concern. I’m scared that folks trained to think rigorously are looking at the spending from the standpoint of what they can get out of it, and ignoring the massive problems all this debt creates. Why isn’t the response “No, we don’t want the money, this is not healthy.”?

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  • ccous

    I left out above the total number for bailout as of Nov 8, 2008 which is ~ 7.36 Trillion dollars.


  • Harbles

    You Said ” and the supporters of first- (ick) and second-generation biofuels. (I say “ick” because corn-based methanol is simply a big waste of resources). ”

    And I agree because diverting human food crops to energy is a bad social idea regardless of the inherent inefficiency of corn ethanol etc. as a motive fuel energy source.

    However Waste Biomass and celulosic methanol may be worthwhile as one component of the new energy mix.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’m a bit concerned about the apparent lack of focus. One thing about the Manhattan Project that simplified things greatly was its singular goal: Weaponize nuclear energy and put it in a package we can drop out of a plane. “Develop clean, efficient American energy” sounds a bit like “achieve victory in Iraq”. What the hell does it mean, exactly? What’s the goal, specifically? What’s “clean”? What’s “efficient”? Have we no preferred candidates for “American Energy”? Shouldn’t we know enough by now to dismiss carbon sequestration and corn-based biofuel? Are we in danger still of trying to squeeze blood from those stones? Far as I can tell, the only real games in town are solar, wind, and nuclear, in order of preference. I’d much rather spend $20 billion and make some choices than twice that so T. Boone Pickens can fleece us.

  • John

    ccous: unlike electric charge, or energy, money can be created or destroyed. Ultimately money is just a promise, and ultimately the dollar is a promise by all the people of the US that we’ll pay whoever holds them…more dollars. That’s what Treasury Bonds are. Most are held domestically so we owe the debt to ourselves. A fraction of it (about a quarter?) is owed to foreign countries.

    The US debt as a fraction of GDP actually held kind of steady for the past 20 years, bouncing around 60%. By comparison, if you are a homeowner, your debt is probably several times your gross income. It’s not clear to me that we cannot afford to take on more debt, if that debt is going to result in economic growth.

    When the US government bailed out the S&L’s in the late 80’s, to the tune of $150 billion, it actually *made* money on the returns. Much of the bailout so far is structured in a similar way, and the US stands to potentially get a return on the loans made unless we really screw ourselves and fail to jump start the economy, both in the short and long term. So it’s simply misleading to make statements like “the bailout cost thus and such so far” because we simply don’t know yet. It’s scary, for sure, and success is not guaranteed. But if the government fails to act we are definitely screwed.

    Investment in basic research is definitely in the long-term category, and it is a real pity that it took this economic crisis for the government to invest substantially more than it has for some time now.

    As for the long list of things that the $825 billion spending package will spend on, it adds up to a few thousand dollars per person. Do you think that simply handing a few thousand dollars to every person would really result in a better economy, with our national infrastructure, education system, health care, and a host of other things so sorely in need of repair? I’d rather see the government spend it, for sure! You may call me socialist, the new scare term of the right wingnuts, but we are rather far from a socialist economy, frankly, by any rational definition of the term.

  • gopher65

    Exactly John. Most of the “bailout” money that governments have handed out to industry so far are either A)repayable loans, or B)direct investments that could make the government large amounts of money in the long run.

    Now personally, I’m not that optimistic. I think that enough of those bailout-investments are bad that the various world’s governments will end up losing a fair amount of money. But those losses will be measured in billions, not trillions. And frankly, for a country like the US losing a few tens of billions of dollars in order to prop up the economy during a downturn isn’t a big deal.

    As for the new stimulus packages that various world governments are passing into law, well, much of that will go into infrastructure. And it is *SORELY NEEDED MONEY*. Many countries have been neglecting their basic infrastructure since WWII. Water pipes don’t replace themselves, and neither do sewers or bridges.

    I do not like the fact that half the water pipes in my city are made of freaking lead due to a combination of government and corporate laxness over the past half-century. I’m hoping that this new infrastructure spending will go to both making necessary additions (IE, new mass transit as well as private/public partnerships to upgrade the power grid) and to repairs on our existing (crumbling) basic infrastructure.

  • Alberto

    There is a great video by Saul Griffith that talks about energy consumption on a global scale. I saw part of this presentation at SciFoo in 2007. Worth watching:

  • PetrF

    I have a modest wish: Can someone advise EIA, and IEA and all other agencies to express energy flows

    in watts a TW , as done e.g. here

    instead of mtoes, BTUs, etc etc

    I do believe that is a FIRST necessary step to

    “Develop clean, efficient American energy” which is actually well defined concept, for example fusion or SPS …

  • David Moles

    You go to war with the physics you’ve got. Climate change isn’t going to wait thirty years for us to raise a new generation of physicists.

  • Haelfix

    Great post.

    I’d go further and say its far from a certain thing that throwing billions of dollars at ‘creating clean renewable energy sources’ is actually going to amount to anything.

    Judging by the physics of many of the proposals, I strongly suspect that in fact it is not. There are a lot of pie in the sky proposals that are at best hail marys, and worse, ones we know cannot work, even in principle, yet still get funding.

    So we’ve gotten the money now, its time to be scientific and judge things dispassionately and with realism.

    If things don’t turn out well, we should hold ourselves responsible for a failure of judgement.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I think long-term investment in speculative ideas is wonderful, and I certainly support that. However, in the very near term, we need more jobs, and we need to get ourselves off fossil fuels. This is why I think a focused program, with a defined beginning, middle, and end, and a specific goal or set of goals (e.g. “Replace (some number) coal-fired power plants with solar, while building no new fossil-fueled plants, and mandate that (some percent) automobiles be electric-only by (some date)”), is essential. Otherwise, you risk meeting neither your near or long-term needs. A few thousand more post-docs is great, but whether they will reduce our carbon footprint or create new jobs in the near term is a total crapshoot. Can we not also commit to something and just go for it? Is there no suitable basket we can throw a bunch of eggs into right now?

  • M. Simon

    Why isn’t this project getting funded, balls to the wall?

    Easy Low Cost No Radiation Fusion

    Rick Nebel Updates The Latest News

  • M. Simon

    “Replace (some number) coal-fired power plants with solar,

    Has Obama discovered the secret of Dark Energy?

    We can go 100% electric cars tomorrow. The government just gives everyone with an auto an electric vehicle. Of course it would crash the grid, but that is a small price to pay to destroy the economy.

  • The Dashpot

    An extensive, innovative, and quickly applicable energy plan is laid out in a fantastic new book reviewed here: I’m a big fan, consider having a look.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Who in their right mind would advocate going to 100% electric cars tomorrow? Of course one ought not to try something impossible. But thanks for reminding us. You’ll perhaps be pleased to know I was wondering about what’s possible. I’m a big fan of possible things, truly. So, if we all knew what was a good plan, couldn’t we advocate it? Write a letter or something so our elected representatives? You know, something potentially helpful?

  • Doug A

    It seems that our representatives throw numbers on a page that must feel good. Has any scientist or administrator in any field been consulted on these funding levels?

    Since its for ‘economic stimulus’, the science community will have to use it or lose it. It takes time to develop useful plans for that kind of money. The money will either be taken away or the funding agencies will be called to account before congressional committees in three years for wasting taxpayer money on projects that neither stimulated the economy nor provided ‘clean, American energy’. Somehow, I doubt long term funding increases for science agencies will fly in future budgets after that.

    I’m with ccous that this stimulus could be reckless, and dangerous for the long term health of science funding.

  • Doug A

    Looks like us scientists aren’t the only ones concerning about effectively using an unimaginable windfall in cash:

    The education stimulus, like the science investments, is sorely needed. But lots of cash now is likely to be wasted.

    A fellow physicist told me this anecdote from his 2 years teaching in the DC school system. The principle shows up with a new laser printer, saying he had extra money that he had to use or lose. Everybody gets one. My friend replies that he had a perfectly good printer, but he could use some basic lab supplies. The principle’s response? Tough luck, this is what you get.

    If we’re going to put the government into massive debt to invest in critical areas, lets make sure its spent wisely.

  • Daniel C

    The main purpose of the stimulus is to create jobs. Here is an analysis on how many jobs will be created from funding additional research.

  • tyler

    I would love to see a show of hands among this group on the following question:

    Given massive funding and resources – meaning a significant portion of the money mentioned in this article, whatever the exact fraction – a proof-of-concept fusion reactor could be brought online in:

    a) less than 10 years
    b) 10-25 years
    c) 25+ years but doable
    d) it’ll never work


    (proof-of-concept reactor must create positive net energy and not fail catastrophically, other parameters may vary)

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    DougA, I used to work in a govt. lab, and this is precisely the behavior one saw literally every fiscal year. I doubt much has changed. Any leftover money is spent. Completely. On something, anything, just spend it. In that lab, the consequences of not spending were even more dire: Not only would they lose the money they hadn’t spent, they’d have their next budget shrunk by that amount, since, clearly, they didn’t need that extra cash in the first place, and administrators just love to reallocate. Fortunately, we at least got to discuss the spending spree together, and decide on what was best. Typically it went to non-perishable consumables, since buying almost any piece of equipment more complicated than an orbital shaker triggered the need for capital expenditure approval. Since the capital expenditure process was invented by total sadists, and created unwanted scrutiny, heaps of plastics it was!

    Indeed, shoveling money on labs, especially govt. labs, can have some egregiously wasteful consequences if it’s not done with extreme care.

  • Anonymous Snowboarder

    The problem with this ‘stimulus’ is that most of it is not stimulus and worse, they are lumping the spending into one year so as to sweep it under the rug. This is not to say there are not things in science or other ares which are justified in seeing increased funding, hopefully for more than one year. But it seems to me we are literally drowning some agencies in money that they cant possibly hope to use in short order. These are not trivial sums of money.

    Someone else seemed to think the previous bailouts were not a monetary problem as they are loans and will be repaid – this assumes they will be repaid, something that looks increasingly unlikely. But bailout money aside – Bush did 160B in stimulus last year and Obama is about to do 860B. Thats 1.020T buckeroos. Nominal GDP? 14T. When will that money be paid back and from where? What about the debt service? And with the bailout of last fall, total federal debt is 11.3T, while the public debt is over 40% of nominal GDP. Add on top the present value of social sec., medicaid/medicare obligations (40-50T) and its quite frightening.

    I suspect few people here realize it, but you could eliminate the entire discretionary portion of the US budget and we would still have a deficity this year (about 1T of which 480B is defense). Whenever speaking to this topic I strongly recommend people read which is the ‘Financial Report’ of the US and is based on accrual accounting (like a business would use), not cash based accounting (like the Federal Budget). Please take a quick spin and check out the charts, paying attention to years 2015-2030. We are upon the brink.

  • Hari Seldon

    Grab what you can while you can, gents & ladies–we’ve been on voodoo economics for a long time now, and reality is fighting back. Think more Collapse of the Roman Empire than Great Depression.

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