Show Me the Money

Inside Higher Ed notes in passing a new bill from the Senate supporting scientific research. There's a lot of bafflegab there, but if you scroll to the bottom, you can find the executive summary:

More specifically, the Commerce and Science Division of the America COMPETES Act would:

Increase Research Investment by:

  • Establishing the Innovation Acceleration Research Program to direct federal agencies funding research in science and technology to set as a goal dedicating approximately 8% of their Research and Development (R&D) budgets toward high-risk frontier research.
  • Authorizing the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) from approximately $703 million in Fiscal Year 2008 to approximately $937 million in Fiscal Year 2011 and requiring NIST to set aside no less than 8 percent of its annual funding for high-risk, high-reward innovation acceleration research.
  • Directing NASA to increase funding for basic research and fully participate in interagency activities to foster competitiveness and innovation, using the full extent of existing budget authority.
  • Coordinating ocean and atmospheric research and education at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies to promote U.S. leadership in these important fields.

Develop an Innovation Infrastructure by:

  • Establishing a President's Council on Innovation and Competitiveness to develop a comprehensive agenda to promote innovation and competitiveness in the public and private sectors.
  • Requiring the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study to identify forms of risk that create barriers to innovation.

While I'm as happy as the next guy to see legislation passed that supports science in any way, I have to say, I'm not impressed by this list. Five of the six itesm are meaningless piffle, as far as I'm concerned.

The only one that strikes me as genuinely useful is the second item: Increasing NIST's funding. The rest of it is meaningless crap-- do we really need yet another blue-ribbon panel to churn out white papers that nobody will read? And does anybody think that a mandate to support "high-risk frontier research" will lead to anything other than the re-labelling of existing projects as "high-risk frontier research?" The phrase is sufficiently vague that it could apply to just about anything that's already getting government funding.

If you want to support scientific innovation, the way to do that is with money. If "high-risk frontier research" is not being funded, it's because there isn't enough money to fund everything that deserves funding. Adding vague additional directives to the funding agencies isn't going to help anything-- even assuming that agencies could accurately identify "frontier research" that will "increase competetiveness" (whatever that means), in the absence of new funding it will be funded only at the expense of other worthwhile research that doesn't happen to fit the buzzwords of the moment.

Symbolic affirmations of support for science are all very nice, but as Randy Newman said, it's money that matters.


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I think you're missing a couple of subtexts.
The NASA directive looks to have two purposes - one to consolidate Science Mission Directorate budget to protect it from raids by Exploration; while the co-operation sub-clause seems to be aimed primarily at DoE collaboration (ie JDEM/SNAP) and maybe also at NSF collaboration (they keep talking, but not much actually happens).

The NOAA clause is serious: the US is now having to buy Earth observing data because they haven't been able to get basic look-down capability into orbit for a long time and the scheduled replacement satellites either failed or are very delayed. And the Earth observation budget is being cut as capability is being lost.
Part of that is a relatively recent attempt by Congress to dump Earth observing responsibility on the NOAA, taking it from NASA, which you'd think would be sensible except NOAA doesn't have the budget or the expertise to do it.
So there is a problem.

I caught the NASA part, though I didn't get that implication from the NOAA bit. 'm still not hugely impressed, though. It's great that they're standing up for basic research at NASA, but in the absence of new funding, I don't think it amounts to all that much.

And just on principle, I'm not really happy with the idea of Congress telling science agencies "You need to do more of such-and-so" without giving them the money to do it. Unfunded mandates are Bad.

If the recommendations of directions for research are translated into guidelines for assessment panels, then what is funded may change. That will come at the expense of other projects that would have been funded under a previous regime, but money is still finite.

What I would like to see more of is the selling of the benefits of funding science research, to the public, because they're the ones paying for it. Research institutions lobby Congress and with some strong results (NSF budget increase when most everything else is under continuing resolution, non-profit exemption from the cap on H1-B visas, for example) but I am not sure that the public get to hear enough that it is their money funding much of the good stuff.

I appreciate that, unless it's pretty Hubble pictures or new planets or black holes or cure for AIDS/Cancer, it's hard to break into the news cycle, but maybe that's not the way to go. Many Americans to whom I have spoken don't really have any understanding of how research is funded at all, or the importance of the government funding; many will pick on a couple of apparently ludicrous funded projects (in which, much like the Stella Liebek McCoffee suit, the whole facts are not explained) and assume that the government is constructing scientific 'bridges to nowhere'.

The fact is that the public pay for this; although I don't expect it to come to that, they have every right, should they wish, to decide to eventually not pay for it at all and leave us all scratching around for the private funding that exists, or shift the money only to government-owned institutes, whatever. If we want more money, sure, lobbying Congress is one way to do it (they are susceptible to it because universities are big employers and attract money and expertise into states and districts) but enthusing the public about the benefits of public funding of science research is a method that I don't think is stressed enough or, at least, has not penetrated far enough into the public conscious. If specific claims about science funding, outside of headline issues like the very possibly oversold stem-cell research, became votewinners then we'd do better.

I am with Stein on the NASA stuff. At nearly every one of the twice-weekly coffee meetings here we have discussions about the effect of Exploration on the NASA Science budget. More money would be great, but reducing the fear that the existing science funding will end up being spent on Moonbases or (most likely doomed) studies of Manned Missions to Mars, etc, would be a good step (and would also help solidify the community behind further exploration, I think). Of course, whether it comes to pass in practice is another matter (and if NSF and NASA could sing from the same sheet on, well, anything, that'd be great, like taking over planetary science at NAIC or agreeing to shared NVO-ish standards, etc).

I've already been paid with your tax dollars to design Moon Bases, Mars Bases, and interstellar robotic probes.

Now the money is all gone, to Baghdad and elsewhere.

I long-since spent all of mine on little things like mortgage, utilities, wife, and child. Now I'm looking for work. Hey, I know -- time to write an unsolicited proposal for "high-risk, high-reward innovation acceleration research."

But which of my many speculative papers should I use in the proposal: the ones on imaginary rest mass particles violating conservation of momentum and leaving the brane, the ones on building fusion spoacecraft out of frozen hydrogen mixed with lithium foil and boron fibers, the one on the fine structure constant being encoded in the 20 standard human amino acids, the one on mapping all possible economic systems, the ones on quantum computing, the ones on nanotechnology?

Maybe something about the Kryptonite that they found in that Serbian mine? Obviously that was White Kryptonite; we need to search for Green Kryptonite, Red Kryptonite, and Bizarro Kryptonite.

You want your high risk? I got your high risk right here.

What a golden opportunity for science fiction authors who can write proposals with a straight face. Oh, Greg Bear, about that Big Dumb Object in EON....


By a cornellian (not verified) on 26 Apr 2007 #permalink