Science in the Stimulus

By John Conway | February 12, 2009 10:32 am

From comes word that funding for science, particularly for NSF and the DOE Office of Science, was largely restored in the House-Senate conference. The relevant passage of the preliminary report is here:

Transform our Economy with Science and Technology:
To secure America’s role as a world leader in a competitive global economy, we are renewing America’s investments in basic research and development, in training students for an innovation economy, and in deploying new technologies into the marketplace. This will help businesses in every community succeed in a global economy.

Investing in Scientific Research (More than $15 Billion)
o Provides $3 billion for the National Science Foundation, for basic research in fundamental science and engineering – which spurs discovery and innovation.
o Provides $1.6 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds research in such areas as climate science, biofuels, high-energy physics, nuclear physics and fusion energy sciences – areas crucial to our energy future.
o Provides $400 million for the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to support high-risk, high-payoff research into energy sources and energy efficiency in collaboration with industry.
o Provides $580 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, including the Technology Innovation Program and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
o Provides $8.5 billion for NIH, including expanding good jobs in biomedical research to study diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, and heart disease.
o Provides $1 billion for NASA, including $400 million to put more scientists to work doing climate change research.
o Provides $1.5 billion for NIH to renovate university research facilities and help them compete for biomedical research grants.

DOE Office of Science and NSF funds had been zeroed out in one version of the Senate measure proposed last week, and were set to $330 million and $1.2 billion respectively in the bill the Senate passed. This is a huge boost for our scientific infrastructure in this country, and will immediately create large numbers of jobs for a broad range of workers. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event: let’s spend the money wisely!

Our next challenge: the 2009 and 2010 budgets for science. We are still operating under a CR, and without an increase in funding, the national labs and universities will have to shed personnel. Stimulus money will not be used to directly fund scientists and engineers at the labs, or postdocs or graduate students at the universities. That money comes from the yearly budget. Obama has pledged to double funding for the physical sciences in 10 years. Let your congressfolk know you care about this!

  • Pieter Kok

    Great news! Now let the complaining commence.

  • Tim

    if this is a stimulus bill then every bill that has ever passed that allocates money to anything or anybody should be renamed a stimulus bill.

    anyway increased science funding is obviously a good thing. so i’m all for that.

  • Bill

    I’m disappointed that in your reviews of federal science funding you’ve left out the U.S. Geological Survey. Sure, it’s a small agency in a land management bureaucracy, but it’s work is an important contribution to Earth sciences. By not including it in your reviews you further its unfortunate lack of visibility within American science.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I don’t understand why the NIH is getting $8.5 billion while the DOE gets a measly $1.6. Biotech and pharma are pretty flush with cash these days, but “alternative energy” is often either worse than useless (e.g. corn to EtOH), or barely at the start-up level of inception. What are they going to do, flatten all of Bethesda and rebuild it? Hey, I’m a bio guy, but this already looks like a porky misallocation to me.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    And I get that one can hypothetically manufacture microbes to make the world’s energy cheap and clean. I ain’t holding my breath on that one.

  • Jay

    To: Low Math: Sen. Specter, a cancer survivor, insisted on significant NIH funding. He increased the allocation in the Senate bill by $6 billion and was able to retain most of that in the final negotiations.

  • John

    Tim: the stimulus differs from the year-to-year operating budgets in that these funds will be used for large-ish infrastructure type expenditures, lab and experiment construction, renovation, etc. My understanding is that these funds will *not* be used to go out and hire more scientists at the labs, or postdocs and students at the universities, since hiring people is a longer term commitment. We will do that sort of hiring, I hope, with increases to the budget (both FY 2009 and 2010)…we will see that from Congress next.

    Bill: I just showed the funding the way Nancy Pelosi showed it. I agree that USGS and earth science in general is important. I have also argue that the time may be now to consider again creating a general Department of Science which would combine NIH, NSF, DOE/OS, NIST, NASA/Science, NOAA, USGS, … Of what use is having so many disparate agencies?

  • changcho

    Looks like good news – I’m sure Physics Today will have (as it usually does) a detailed breakdown and analysis when it comes out.

  • Kevin

    “Provides $1.6 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds research in such areas as climate science, biofuels, high-energy physics, nuclear physics and fusion energy sciences – areas crucial to our energy future.”

    Which one of these is not like the other? What does HEP research have to do with “our energy future?” Am I missing something, or is this a reflection of misunderstanding on the part of Nancy Pelosi’s office?

  • Tszap

    I love the message being sent that DOE science is a big priority, but I am not sure how or where they can spend such a big amount of money in a short timeframe. Big science projects take a long time to plan and execute. There’s a big hole in DOE in the current CR that could be filled and more by the stimulus money, but as John says there is still an FY09 budget process to complete and it is assumed that regular operating expenses will be covered by that. Any idea what DOE wants to spend the stimulus money on??

  • Tim Nelson

    Tszap, every year there are hundreds of good, carefully considered proposals for small R&D projects and requests for improvements to infrastructure and equipment that are denied for lack of funds. Additional funding translates into construction and equipment purchases that pump money into the economy almost immediately by allowing more of these requests to be fulfilled.

    Here is a letter that I wrote to my representatives a few days ago. Perhaps it will provoke some additional thought here:

    Dear XXXX,

    We are greatly concerned to hear that increased funding for science included in the current stimulus bill may be significantly reduced from the levels proposed by the House. We imagine the argument is that that this does not represent one-time spending but could result in the expansion of ongoing programs. However, as recognized by the America Competes Act, it is critically important that budgets for basic research be increased immediately and continuously into the future if we expect America to continue to lead the world technologically and economically.

    The advancements in technology resulting from fundamental scientific research have been responsible for half of the economic growth since World War II: it is what separates the world’s great powers from the Third World. However, in recent years, there has been an extreme erosion of investment in science in the United States. With very few exceptions, the private sector has divested from basic research, concentrating instead on development of existing technologies in a focus on the near-term bottom line. Government-funded research has followed this lead without recognition that the responsibility of the government in our social contract is to perform critical functions that market forces will not. Government must not duplicate the action of the free market, but rather complement it. In order to keep our technological and economic development healthy, the government must play the role of looking forward to the distant future by funding basic research, research with implications so profound that we currently do not have any framework in which to understand its importance. This is what science is about. I hope that in your wisdom, you will recognize this and fight for the economic future of our country and the betterment of humanity by fighting for increases in funding for science.

    Regarding the current legislation, it is important to recognize that stimulus applied to fund scientific research results in immediate impacts on the economy. In the performance of my own research, I would like to begin a new investigation that requires both people and equipment. I have been told that if we receive increased funding I will be able to do this. The small company I am negotiating with for scientific instruments is so hungry right now that I am treated like their only customer: my order could keep them afloat. Meanwhile, I have students knocking at my door that need work to continue their education. It is hard for me to imagine anything more “shovel-ready” than this project: I could hire workers and buy equipment tomorrow if the money were available to me. I see the same pattern repeated, over and over, in projects I consult on and grant proposals I review. This is good and important work, ready to be done, to hire workers, to educate, to purchase equipment; work that could change both our short-term technological advancement and our long term scientific understanding.

    Please consider these factors as you decide which fights to pick. This particular fight is one that, as a country, we cannot afford to turn our back on again.

    Best Regards,
    Dr. Timothy K. Nelson
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Dr. Silke Nelson
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

  • Brian

    Great news! The NY Times had an article today about comments made by Steven Chu on Wednesday (yesterday).
    Maybe not directly related to the stimulus package but to some possible directions for part of the efforts of DOE.

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  • Ciaobella

    Great news! But according to John, the money won’t be used to create more permanent jobs in basic science. Too bad, post docs and grad students! Maybe you can go into real estate or high finance (oops, maybe not). There’s not enough money to hire new faculty AND let the tenured faculty maintain their sinecures.

  • nemo
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  • Patrick

    re: John Says: February 12th, 2009 at 1:10 pm “combine NIH, NSF, DOE/OS, NIST, NASA/Science, NOAA, USGS, … Of what use is having so many disparate agencies?”

    John, I thought that combining agencies was the way to go when I was at a National Lab. My thinking evolved to prefer a multi agency community. This because I could see the benefit of competition to maintaining higher standards of science. I also feared possible “Stalinization” of a centralized “Department of Science”.

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  • Matt A

    You can print 1 Trillion dollars to pay millions workers to dig holes all day, that doesn’t mean they are adding anything productive to the economy. Just by more issuing debt to pay for more grad students and postdocs in physics/math/astronomy doesn’t mean those jobs will add anything to long term economic growth (even if they are really smart girls/guys … are they producing something people want to buy?)

    Public funding for science and technology research should always be a part of any budget (that’s how I funded graduate school), but the best way to stimulate the economy is through tax cuts, not increased wasteful government spending.

    Don’t take my word for it. For example, Ask Christina Romer (Obama’s new chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) found an economic multiplier of 3 for tax cuts:

    An analysis of the current stimulus package Professor Becker (UChicago, Nobel ’92) found the current stimulus to have an multiplier of <1 even if we continue to have a large output gap. Once we get back to full employment the multiplier will approach 0. In other words, all that money spent will have ZERO economic impact, while increasing our debt by 800B.

  • counterMatt

    Matt: I would argue that stemming the unemployment tide and getting back to full employment are not zero economic impact. Whether it’s worth (or requires) $800 billion of spending in this manner is another question.

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  • ccous

    The letter above written by Tim Nelson states “The advancements in technology resulting from fundamental scientific research have been responsible for half of the economic growth since World War II”.

    What is the source for that statement?

  • Matt A

    @counterMatt: Did you read the Becker article? The point is that even in the short term the stimulus will negative economic impact. In other words, as the economy finds equilibrium and enters a recovery phase, the stimulus will actually slow this process. You are assuming the stimulus will help, not hurt the recovery phase.

    Both professor Becker and the CBO (a govenment agency!) agree the long term impact is negative.


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