Science does stimulate

By Daniel Holz | February 7, 2009 10:37 pm

There has been much discussion in the comments of our recent posts here and here on the stimulus package, the gist of which seems to be that science shouldn’t be part of the stimulus, since it doesn’t effectively create jobs and boost the economy. I would argue that not only does science funding directly translate into cash infusions into the economy (much more effectively than tax cuts, for example), but it also helps boost the economy over the longer term (which is arguably just as important). Mark Westneat, Pritzker Director of the Biodiversity Synthesis Center at the Field Museum in Chicago, has written a nice piece addressing the immediate stimulus from science funding. As he puts it, “scientific research is basically all about hiring people and buying stuff”.

Seal of the United States Senate CV readers may be getting sick and tired of hearing all about the unfolding funding drama in Washington. Unfortunately, the decisions by these 100 individuals will have tremendous repercussions, not only this year, but potentially for the foreseeable future (since they set the tone for science spending in an era of immense budgetary pressure).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
  • Robert Heckendorn

    When I do funded research students learn and in the process get paid and they go out and buy pizza, rent apartments, go skiing, get a car, etc. I buy equipment and travel to conferences and stay in hotels to present my work so that others can do more science. A percentage of the money I get is taxed by the university to help it operate. That is all the staff from the plumber to the president. That makes education more affordable so students have more money to spend and so it goes. Spend money on university research and it has a huge immediate multiplier. Perhaps even more important is that technology brings innovation and change and a better life. Although not as obvious as students buying pizza I feel confident this is keeping America competitive and creating the job market of the future.

    Science is a great place to stimulate the economy.

  • Ryan Dickherber

    It’s extremely unfortunate that our politicians don’t see this. It says something about the position of science in our society that our politicians don’t even know the direct impact science has on the economy. There are many experiments just waiting to be funded (just ask any third year TA), that could almost immediately provide jobs for postdocs, students and engineers, and feed money into parts of the more technical parts of the economy that roads and bridges have little to do with (like companies that make all those specialized pieces of equipment that only experimentalists can find a use for). Obviously this could increase jobs in theory as well. And not to mention peripheral expenses like rental cars, plane tickets and hotels for all those traveling scientists it would support.

    And all that is before the immeasurable long term benefit of more science.

    In St. Louis, Wash. U. is one of about 3 of the most important institutions or companies in the region. It is a critical part of the local economy. The other two big companies I have in mind, Enterprise Rent-a-Car and Anheuser-Busch, recently laid off thousands of people. A very direct way to compensate for that loss would be to feed research money into Wash. U. (and the other research institutions in the area). Research money means more jobs at the university and more purchases being made from local companies. It wouldn’t make up for all the losses, but neither would building roads and schools. But it’s as equally an effective stimulant. (Obvious disclaimer: I am affiliated with Wash. U.)

  • Bystander

    *sigh* The almighty Republicans just made sure to cut 80Billion from that stimulus that was going to go to our schools. At least TV is a go!

  • John Phillips, FCD

    But of course, didn’t you know, all that science funding does is support the super lavish lifestyles of elitist scientists.

  • Mark Sletten

    You guys are missing the point. This bill is being fast-tracked on the premise it is an “emergency stimulus package.” If the benefits of proposed spending are not reaped until after the forecast end of the crisis, then the proposed spending should not be included in the bill, simple as that.

    Now, if you believe (as I do) that increased government investment in science is critical to the future survival of our nation, then by all means seek the funding. But do so in such a way that the bill authorizing the funding stands on its own merits. Simply adding spending for science as an earmark marginalizes its importance. People see that the only way you can obtain funding for science is to tack it on to some unrelated bill (like an emergency stimulus plan).

    Additionally, you reinforce the status quo, that it’s okay to “pile on” your favorite pet spending project to any handy bill about to pass a vote. It’s much easier that way to avoid the scrutiny a stand-alone bill would face. Aren’t you all tired of it?

    President Obama ran on a plank of change. He promised to change the way Washington does business. He promised to eliminate earmarks. I VOTED FOR HIM ON THE BASIS OF THESE IDEALS! Now he’s using the current economic crises as camouflage to push thru a host of spending programs representing the largest earmarks in history. What’s new?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    If you’re talking about me, you couldn’t be more wrong. If not, then my bad. Anyway, going with the former, my position was and always has been that science IS stimulatory, but not all science, or science-related activity, is stimulatory in the near term. My sense of this “stimulus package” is that Washington (not just President Obama, who isn’t the only politician in the city, as we are more frequently and painfully reminded with each passing day) wants VERY near-term results out of this incredibly massive, one-off bit of deficit spending, to avert a projected devastating economic depression. We are, according to some, on the brink of the worst economic crisis since at least the 1930s.

    I have also observed that the most ideologically anti-big-govt. political forces in Washington are also pretty anti-science. In fact, they make a sport of taking potshots at taxpayer-funded research with, to them, no obvious benefit to The American People, and it works for them among their constituents. These folks HATE this stimulus. Worse, they could be right about it not working for all any of us can really know. So, how money is spent on science as part of this proposed stimulus is, I think, of utmost political importance if we are to preserve the very worthy goal of increasing funding for publically-funded science for the long term. My concern, which I think is well-founded, is that if and when the Democrats fall short of their desired short-term goals, the political fallout will create a terrible backlash against govt. spending, of which the science-related kind is among the easiest and most politically effective for Republicans to pillory. I can think of the SSC as no better example (meanwhile we do get the ISS, probably because it keeps some people in districts where rockets are built fat and happy), but even the last eight years of Republican anti-science should put a chill in the heart of anyone who cares. So I see great peril in conflating an activity with inherently uncertain payoff deadlines and this economic stimulus proposal, with its politically dire consequences if it fails. We probably don’t want the kind of climate for science we will get if Obama is a one-term president, and the House swings back hard to the right. This can easily happen, in my opinion. Science spending (as well as other worthy things like all the social programs that keep American citizens from starving or dying of easily-treatable illnesses, for instance) will suffer greatly in such a climate, all the more for having been associated with Obama’s “Government Spending Package”. If the science spending in this package doesn’t also put people like Joe The Plumber to work too, in, like, months, I think it entirely possible those tiny slices of the bill will become a political football, to everyone’s detriment.

    If the stimulus succeeds, the Republican Party, in resisting so uncompromisingly, has dealt itself a blow so traumatic it will be at least eight or twelve years before they’re even much relevant. In such a future, I could envision American science flourishing like it hasn’t in generations, whether it gets a larger or smaller slice of the Stimulus Package. That’s the future I want, and I’d like it to have every chance to be realized. My thinking is built almost entirely around political strategy, not about my confidence in science being an economic engine.

  • Friend of science

    I am sure that people have looked at how over history, science discoveries have had huge payoffs. The 100+ year effort to understand electromagnetism/chemistry alone forms the foundation of our modern society.

    Daniel is right when he suggests that scientists, and high energy physicists in particular, have done a lousy job articulating the importance of their work. The problem I think is that people educated enough to understand the importance see it as so obvious that it is hard to imagine why the masses don’t.

    I watched a good portion of The Atom Smashers last night (I hope John gets a chance to comment on this). I think high energy physicists understand that a lot of people think that HEP programs aren’t useful, but it is very obvious that the HEP community has a hard time communicating.

    I was somewhat struck by the pity-party slant The Atom Smashers had. A lot of physicists were complaining about having a lot of time pressure on them…who’s fault is that? If members of the community really enjoy their work, they shouldn’t be complaining about working 16 hour days. There was a point in my youth where I felt I should be pitied for working long hours, but that quickly evaporated when I realized that everyone in a serious profession works long hours. I do strongly believe in finding a “work-life” balance, and it would be great if such a balance could be institutionalized, but right now its up to individuals to find that for themselves (and believe me, 9 times out of 10, the only person making you work more than 8-9 hours a day can be found by looking in the mirror).

    The competitive nature of the field was obvious from the LHC clock that was prominent everywhere. Physicists at Tevatron seemed to be defining the importance of their work solely on the basis of beating the LHC startup. That in itself should be enough to cause someone to scratch their head.

    It is very difficult to sell an ego-driven enterprise to the public, which seems to be the current default mode because it is even more difficult to state how important and significant it would be to find the Higgs boson. To sell the need to do so as a competition has increasingly less traction in modern politics, especially when we have access to all the data from the competitor.

    Fundamentally, HEP is a human enterprise. If there is a competitive slant to be made, it is that we need to pursue these programs because we risk losing our status as a developed, first world nation if we fail to educate and challenge our next generation of citizens. Physicists need to ask leaders the question about how frustrating it would be if there was no american physicist who could answer how our competitors were able to accomplish the next great scientific feat.

    As far as statements about Obama not keeping his promises, I would argue that individuals really don’t understand how the levers of power really work in D.C. I mean, you’re picking on a guy who had to beg to keep his blackberry! There are a lot of stakeholders in the political process, and to assume that things will change overnight is naive. I think that the next big surprise will be when the administration is forced by reality to back off the $500,000 executive pay limit.

    I am not a physicist, but I love physics. I have noticed that physicists in particular have a tendency to be very aloof to us poor enthusiasts. I want you guys to succeed, but I know enough to tell you that no amount of letter writing on my part will have an impact if the benefactors of that letter writing fail in their own message.

  • John

    Friend of science: I think you are right that The Atomsmashers pressed the point about funding for our field pretty hard. But put yourself in the shoes of someone like Joel Butler or Sheldon Stone, the leaders of the BTeV project. In the film they were interviewed right after funding for the experiment was suddenly zeroed out by Congress. First imagine how you would feel if after devoting 15 years of your life and career, after passing dozens of intense reviews, after being told that your project was of the highest priority for the field, it was just…gone. The film portrayed that honestly, I thought. You can call it a pity party if you want, but you need to take the next step and ask yourself how this could happen in a country that ostensibly has an actual science policy, a multi-year plan for funding large projects.

    Government and scientists must be partners in this enterprise. We scientists forego lavish salaries and lifestyles, and commit ourselves to this endeavor. Society benefits tremendously from the knowledge we gain, the people we train, and the culture we help create. It’s awfully hard not to feel like the partnership, though, is rather one-sided at times.

  • Gil

    How much stimulus would be provided by the 40-70% that gets skimmed off many research grants by the university or lab as “overhead” before the scientist stimulates anything? I would guess less than tax cuts, even, with so many universities trying to prop up their endowments.

  • John

    At public universities such as mine (Univ. of California) overhead on research is used to pay the staff of the university (including graduate students who teach), pay utility bills, help fund capital development (construction), and support the research infrastructure. Those dollars get spent, Gil, not saved. When dollars get spent they give a one year return to GDP of at least a dollar.

  • Brian Mingus

    I believe the same logic being advocated in this post is being advocated by the First Lady in another area. I saw a quote today where she emphasized three advantages of the stimulus. One of them was that it would improve military housing. This is presumably because they’ve done the math and realized that the military knows how to turn money into construction jobs. Unfortunately neither she nor the President seem to fully realize that universities know how to do that just as well. They are always building something, and at least at my university (and speaking as ex-military), these are much higher quality buildings than you see in military housing.

    Obama set himself up for this kind of criticism – he made Science one of his major campaign promises. Unfortunately he has now changed his goal away from his campaign promises in order to accomodate the economy and he is now optimizing the number of jobs created instead. This has nothing to do with science and so I suppose we should stop expecting anything. Presumably he believes that its an important precedent that this bill gets passed at all costs so that he won’t be considered a lame duck, even if that means cutting science in order to appease the GOP. If this bill gets through, maybe Science will be on his next agenda. But compromising on Science now isn’t a great precedent to set in my opinion – he will just get out-muscled by the GOP next time this issue comes up as well.

    For goodness sakes, its nearly a trillion dollars, and how many Americans really want to work a crappy construction job anyway?

  • Friend of science

    I know how upsetting it is to devote yourself to something only to have it end in disappointment, I certainly wouldn’t want my criticism to be construed as being directed at any one person.

    I just feel that their is a dearth of strategic planning within the basic sciences community. This stimulus package is a prime example. I don’t blame any group from trying to figure out how to rob the treasury in these times of need, and I would never advocate any nonsense about taking the moral highground, but are the leaders of the basic science establishment really advocating that they should get a few kickbacks from a temporary spending bill as payment for supporting the democratic ticket?

    I have attended a recent PR event where leaders within the basic sciences were trying to convince the public that we should fund basic sciences in hopes of breakthrough technologies that could free us from our carbon based economy. Some questioners wanted to know if it was wrong to advocate a technology based solution when we should instead focus on changing behavior. The esteemed panel basically shrugged and admitted that the questioners had a point. Are these guys really the best you have to throw against the Washington establishment? What’s worse, there were a few chance comments that indicated a slight contempt toward the high energy physics community.

    If anything it has become painfully clear that the basic sciences and the portion of the government establishment that supports the civil research programs has been marginalized very effectively. This marginalization has not been through any coordinated effort, but solely by a failure of the community to foster a politically savvy, organized core set of leaders. Who answers for basic science in the US?

    If basic science, and in particular high energy physics, wants to relevant, there needs to be much more outreach to leadership in government in order to explain how certain types of research benefits society. I fully believe that high energy physics is really the most critical research area that is at greatest danger, I also fully believe that it benefits society immensely, firstly as an important test of applied mathematics, secondly as a venue to support computer development for data collection and analysis, and thirdly as a benchmark of technical and theoretical standards.

    I would also include the following list from CERN as being appropriate:

  • jackal

    Hmm, well here’s a datapoint — budgets for projects are often voted on a year-to-year basis, so some random negotation between two senators can result in your project — for which there’s already been decades of sunk costs and investment — to lose funding before completion. So, you know, have multi-year committments set and not subject to random whims for big projects could be a useful thing.

  • Friend of science

    If your program is at the mercy of the whims of two senators, then it does suffer from a lack of strategic planning.

  • Bob

    I like the comment by John Phillips that “science funding does is support the super lavish lifestyles of elitist scientists” as it gives me an opportunity to clarify a few things. I am a scientist, made my PhD in 1994. There is no such thing as a”super lavish lifestyle for elitist scientists”, or “elitist scientists”, for that matter. Salaries for scientists are significantly below the salary level of similarly qualified persons in other industries. I am paid $25 an hour, and I am ok with that. With my qualifications, in a science job I could earn probably up to $40 an hour. But such jobs are rare and hard to find. As software programmer, I could earn five times as much as I do know, with significantly less time to spend in getting the appropriate qualifications. On top of that, my pay is for a 35-hour week but I work 50-60 hours on average, so my real pay per hour is actually less that an bus driver. And yet, I love my job and that’s basically why I do it. And I think 95% of my colleagues do it for the same reason. “Lavish lifestyle”? You find that in the business and financial sector, not in science. And by the way, government funding for science in very rare occasions pays salaries for scientists other than postdocs. So I am sorry to say that John Phillips, and apparently many other people, are completely misinformed about the reality of science.

  • Bob

    One more comment: the current $800 billion package is said to provide up to 4 million jobs. That’s $200,000 to provide for one job. Government funded NSF research grants, at least in my area of research, are somewhere around $300,000 on average and create between 3 and 5 jobs each, which makes such grants more than two times as effective with regard to the job market as the overall stimulus package.

  • ccu

    i think the bill is ~ 850 billion, here are some questions I am looking to get the answers too:

    How soon does the 850 billion have to be paid back? (We are borrowing it I believe.)

    What is the total interest that will be paid on it?

    What is the goal in terms of the 1st year rise in GDP? (2nd, and third?)
    What is the goal in terms of the 1st year rise in employment? (2nd and thrid?)
    What will be the impact to inflation over the next year, second and third?

    If we don’t borrow all the money, what percentage of it will be printed?

    I appreicaite any help in getting the answers. It seems these are important to answer before we can asses wether this bill will have a good or bad effect on anything.

    Given that there are some many scientists here, I wonder if one or more would be willing to state the goal of this bill as a hypothesis and then state the measures by which you would judge the falsification of that hypothesis. It is hard, or I can’t find any, rigorous thinking about all this spending. I see alot of excitement, or other emotions like anger and fear, but no one critically thinking about this.

  • Ciaobella

    Let’s see, you want more money to hire grad students and postdocs in your field of research, but that money likely won’t create any more PERMANENT jobs within the field for those same grad students and postdocs. I’d call that widening the opening of the “leaky pipeline,” but keeping the other end of the pipeline at the same size. I don’t think I’ll be calling on my senator to support that.

  • GNW Wisdom

    I don’t think any of you understand. “The Stimulus” was supposed to prevent the coming economic breakdown of our society. It wasn’t big enough to begin with, it’s probably going to be drastically cut, and the economic breakdown will likely so severe that funding of ANY high-cost physics will be out for the future. Don’t think 1930s Great Depression; think Fall of the Roman Empire.

    Like “The Surge”, we’ll be told “The Stimulus” is working. If you are young, take a snapshot of the world now, and when you are 60 (if you survive that long) do a comparison. Roman culture didn’t collapse all at once; it took generations to really get into the Dark Ages. 40 years ought to show the trend.

    Remember, you heard it here first.

  • Doug A

    I’ve repeatedly raised concerns over the last few blog posts about potential pitfalls of the science funding in the economic spending bill. Along with Low Math, Meekly Interacting, and the post above by Ciaobella, my main concern has been what happens to newly funded researchers and projects in two years, when the stimulus money runs out.

    Nature this week expresses similar concerns. In this editorial,
    and the stories linked from there, Nature examines the funding crisis at the N.I.H. that occurred when its budget was quickly doubled, then flat lined in the last decade. It should be noted that if significant portions of any science stimulus package is spent on researchers, included grad students, a parallel outcome of extreme grant competition and many small groups on the brink of collapse will result in two years.

    NIH had it lucky; their budget flatlined at the increased level. In contrast, the NSF and DOE budgets will drop back to pre-stimulus levels in two years. We should be careful for what we wish.


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