NASA Goddard Science Jamboree 20Sam Stein at the Huffington Post wrote a piece about the effects of sequestration on science in the USA. The article has interviews with leaders of several science research groups that have promising new ideas and technologies. Most of the examples are from basic research in health sciences.

The concerns are real. The examples are real. Yet, this sort of article typically cherry-picks a few examples most likely to result in products. Research is also about better nursing so that patients comply with long-term treatment strategies and will benefit from the shiny new surgical operation. Research is about a health survey to canvas a state with personal contacts to provide better guidance for policy makers. Research is about how to reduce childhood obesity when the main decision-maker is a homeless single mother working at low-wage jobs with irregular schedules needing a car because there is no public transportation to the available employment. Research is about better methods of inspecting bridges to maintain safety; this research itself may be relatively inexpensive so the university has little enthusiasm, but the research could save large amounts of money for repair and planning budgets. The article by Sam Stein is helpful, but only grabs the most shiny toys with the best profit potential.

Paula Stephan wrote How Economics Shapes Science (2012, Harvard University Press) based on her 30 years of studying science funding. One reviewer summarizes an important section:

Perhaps the most interesting story in this story-packed book is the tale of the years 1998-2002, when the NIH budget doubled. This vast influx of funding had many unanticipated and some unproductive outcomes:

  • Success rates for R01 grant applications didn’t rise, and in fact fell significantly by 2009
  • Universities used the funding to justify a building binge, partly to lure prime faculty and partly to create capacity for the anticipated grants
  • Grants grew in size, and absorbed more costs, like graduate student tuitions and other overheads
  • The short-term nature of the doubling, combined with the long-term nature of the resulting grant commitments, created a dearth of money in subsequent years, as funding fell yet remained tied to previous commitments
  • The NIH took monies away from R01 grant-making during the expansion to pursue other, larger initiatives
  • Younger researchers suffered more, as renewing grants did better overall during both the funding boom and the subsequent cuts
  • The number of papers resulting from the doubling of NIH funding remained stubbornly unaffected — as one study put it, “Wherever the funds went, they left no clear scientific record.”

So, where do we go? Democrats want us to blame the Sequester on the Republicans, but budget cuts are a major feature of the budget passed out of the Democratic-led US Senate. The budget committee in the US Senate is led by so-called progressives like US Senators Patty Murray and Tammy Baldwin. Yet their budget makes cuts throughout with no guarantees for traditional Democratic priorities like Social Security and Medicare, or science.

Sam Stein writes:

The problem, Antonsen said, was not just how the lack of funding would impact graybeards like himself, but also the newcomers to the field. Young scientists who had spent 12 years studying for their PhDs would find the climate inhospitable, and future generations would look elsewhere.

“We used to be able to tell people that there was some kind of job security,” he said. “That would be a compensation for not being paid as much. Now, if you are taking a big risk in investing 12 years of your life to learn how to do the science, people will think twice.”

Remember how Senator Patty Murray holds hearings about the impact of budget cuts on ordinary US citizens, but only after championing an austerity budget for President Obama? US Senator Amy Klobuchar held a hearing on long-term unemployment after she introduced a tsunami of H-1B visas for high tech jobs which strongly promotes age discrimination and increases job competition in an already difficult market for scientists. US Senator Tammy Baldwin is their close colleague in all these decisions. H-1B visas are their gift to the science community to hold down wages for junior scientists which were never very high. Holding down wages makes it easier to continue science with little money, but it really doesn’t encourage anyone to pursue a career.

Our leaders in science and business claim a shortage of students entering science degree programs. Sam Stein quotes a researcher in his article.

“I wouldn’t advise people to go into science,” he said. “I think it’s a tough career to follow. It’s not the career that I thought it was, or that it was for me a couple of years ago.”

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center under Creative Commons license