Help make the sausage

By Daniel Holz | February 4, 2009 12:22 am

Over 100 years ago, Otto von Bismark declared: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” John has been detailing the development of the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009 (HR 1)” here, here, and here. The bottom line is that the House version of the bill will reinvigorate basic science in this country. The Senate version of the bill is not as encouraging. According to an email alert sent out by the APS, the Senate summary

…did not offer many details about how much funding science would receive in that package. However, we are receiving troubling signs that science may not receive the same levels of funding as in the House package and would even, in some scenarios, be cut or even eliminated. We are therefore urging the Senate to follow the House lead in helping to ensure American competitiveness in the 21st century by making critically needed infrastructure investments.

Science Magazine has compiled a side-by-side comparison. For example, the House bill funds the NSF at $3 Billion, while the Senate version is at $1.4 Billion. The DOE Office of Science (which is the largest source of funding for basic research in the physical sciences in the US) gets $2 Billion from the House, and $430 Million from the Senate. These are huge gaps. And note that all of the CV bloggers are funded, at least in part, by these agencies (for doing science, not for blogging). The AAAS analyzes the differences between the two versions of the bill in some detail here.

A staggering amount of national treasure is about to be spent in an attempt to stimulate our economy. [The picture below is of one billion dollars, in $100 bills (hat tip to commenter Carlos).] one billion dollarsAlthough one can certainly criticize the idiocy that has brought us to this crisis, and second-guess the appropriate dollar amounts, few would question that some sort of action is appropriate. Congress is currently being bombarded with suggestions for how to spend our national treasure. Roads and bridges will most certainly be built. However, I believe a compelling case can be made for funding science, both as a way to create short-term jobs and benefits, but also as an essential path to ensuring the future vitality of our country (both economically and spiritually). Fortunately, this message has already been heard, and Congress is struggling to do the right thing. But scientists are notoriously bad at contacting their representatives, and reminding them that we exist and are worth supporting. This is a participatory democracy, after all.

So, what is to be done? CV readers have had an easy time of it thus far, enjoying the spectacle, chiming in on occasion, and generally basking in the glow of their monitors. But now it’s time to get off your duffs and click a few buttons. (Non-American readers are off the hook.) The APS has made it simple and painless to send emails to your Senators encouraging them to support basic science. Just click on the link, change the subject and a line or two of the form email, and click submit. These emails really do make a difference, especially if there are many of them. This is why the NRA and the AARP have so much clout. Spend a minute on the web form. If you are slightly more ambitious, you can also call your Senators. A friendly young staffer is eagerly awaiting your call, and will jot down another checkmark next to the “fund basic science” entry on their ledger. Every checkmark matters. Then you can rest easy, knowing that you’ve put in your two cents on the way your government spends your hard-earned tax dollars.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
  • Jason Heldenbrand

    Republican senators do not and never will care about science save those used in war or banking.

  • Ray Gedaly

    Despite my usual claim that I am “South Canadian,” I will eagerly participate in this effort!

  • Tad

    Ok, I’ll get right on the phone with Jim Inhofe!

  • Luke

    Daniel (and other CV bloggers): As a voter who is not a scientist, I’d like to know specifically how researchers will spend the grants that they get from DOE and NSF if the overall levels are increased. What portion of grants are spent on hiring postdocs, which creates jobs directly, as opposed to other uses? Would you take a lot of that grant money and spend it on equipment? If so, is that equipment made in the U.S.? I seem to recall from my student days that professors were required to pay a certain percentage of their grants to their departments or university to pay for “overhead”. The stimulative value of that overhead is unclear to me since it depends on what the universoty does with money.

  • Chris W.


    Nobody is arguing that funding science has significant stimulative value in the sense that you seem to be getting at.

    The real issue is this: What do scientists do, that needs to continue for our country’s (and the world’s) long term viability and health, even in the face of a severe recession? You might want to think about and ask about what science was up to in the 1930s that has made a long-term contribution, economic and otherwise. The results were a mixed bag, of course, as for practically everything else that people invest in, but I don’t think one could rationally argue that it should never have been done.

  • John

    If we (university-based high energy physics) get money from the stimulus, we would want to hire people (80%), travel (15%) and buy equipment (5%). But we cannot hire people with one-shot money. Hiring people is a commitment. So we may have to use stimulus money more for equipment, or lab renovation (which we desperately need).

  • Phil

    Just have to make a comment here… the disparity is not quite as much as you’re making it out to be. While I would certainly like to see the DoE Office of Science receive more funding, the full breakdown for DoE is:

    House: $41 billion (including $2 billion for the Office of Science, which supports U.S. physics, and $400 million for ARPA-E)

    Senate: $40 billion (including $430 million for Office of Science, $2.6 billion for energy efficiency and renewable-energy research)

    In addition, take a look at NASA and NIST… they come out better in the Senate programs.

    House: $600 million (including $400 million for science, $150 million for aeronautics, and $50 million for repairs to NASA facilities damaged by hurricanes)

    Senate: $1.5 billion ($500 million for science, $250 million for aeronautics, $500 milllion for human exploration, and $250 million for hurricane repairs)

    House: $520 million (including $300 million for extramural buildings, $100 million for intramural research, and $70 million for Technology Innovation Program)

    Senate: $575 million (including $357 million for intramural facilities, $218 million for competitive grants)

    The overall numbers are as follows:

    House: 49.7 billion
    Senate: 49.2 billion

    So the bills, money wise, are pretty close. It looks like in DoE’s case, more money is going to energy efficiency and renewables research as opposed to the Office of Science. On the other hand, NSF (the ones funding my scholarship so I have a vested interested there…) does get hosed in the Senate version, as does USGS.

    Granted, I’m just looking at the raw numbers… feel free to correct me show me why I’m wrong. :-)

  • John

    Having now read the AAAS analysis completely, it would seem that DOE-funded university groups are likely to fare far better from an increase in the FY2009 appropriations rather than the stimulus.

    “Most of the R&D funding agencies … could receive supplemental FY 2009 appropriations even before regular FY 2009 appropriations, and the stimulus spending will be added on top of the CR spending levels and eventual final FY 2009 regular budgets.”

  • Luke

    Chris W.: The stimulus currently being debated in Washington is needed to address the rapid deterioration in the economy. Money needs to be spent this year to keep the unemployment rate from rising to Great Depression-like levels. So I’m pleased to read John’s post above that says he would spend 80% on new jobs. Lab renovation would also be a good use of money if it employed construction workers, painters, plumbers, etc.

    I’m sure that we all can agree that there will be long-term benefits from investing in scientific research. That’s always the case. What need Obama and the Congress to do is to fund investments that will put people to work. The long-term benefits are actually of less importance.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Just curious: Where did the 100,000 new jobs figure come from? Is that a sustainable figure?

  • Chad

    I have done my part. Living in Minnesota it is unfortunate I have only one senator to contact.

  • CoffeeCupContrails

    Daniel, if foreign grad students in the US could also send that letter along with the rest of you folks, we would gladly do so (even though I’m currently privately funded)!

  • daniel

    Phil, the devil is in the details (which, granted, are scarce in the Senate version). Much of the funding is going to infrastructure, or other non-competed fixed projects. I think the reaction of the community is focused on two particular disparities. First, the NSF fares much worse in the Senate version, to the tune of over $1B. Also, the DOE Office of Science (which funds a lot of the basic research in this country) is also inferior. At first blush, it doesn’t look that bad. But if you break down the numbers, the Senate gives the Office of Science $430M, of which ~$300M is infrastructure and the like. So basic science gets ~$150M. On the other hand, after infrastructure costs, the House version ends up giving DOE Office of Science something like $1.5B. That’s a *huge* difference. And that’s one of the major reasons to email/call! I think this is why the APS has put out an Action Alert, as have various other scientific societies. There’s a lot of money floating around, without a clear home as of yet. Nudging this towards basic science seems like a good thing. And time is running out, as this will probably be ironed out in the next week or two.

  • Sili

    (Non-American readers are off the hook.)

    Why not give us a list of your most xenophobic, backwards, protectionist senators? Then we can wrtie them to thank them for crippling US science so thoroughly that the only job any of you’ll have in ten years time is serving champagne and caviar (or FRENCH fries) to the rest of the world.

  • JoAnne

    Just read a newsflash that senate “moderates” are hoping to slash $88B from the stimulus. What’s on their list to cut – well, the NSF amongst other things. Geesh! God damn idiots! Here’s the quote from the AP article:

    “Nearly 20 senators from both parties met twice during the day and reviewed a list of possible cuts totaling 88 billion. They included elimination of at least $40 billion in aid to the states, which have budget crises of their own, as well as $1.4 billion ticketed for the National Science Foundation.”

  • Pingback: Science does stimulate | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()


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