Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Conflict Brews Over Science in US Stimulus Package

With the stimulus bill passing through the US Senate already, it is now the tedious and difficult task to reconcile the bill's version that passed though the US House of Representatives early. The differences are still quite big as far as funding for science is concerned.

Overall, science fared well in the Senate. According to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (pdf format), the Senate bill includes $17.8 billion for research and development, including $2 billion for new facilities and equipment - compared to $13.2 billion in the version previously passed by the House of Representatives.

This boost is mostly due to an extra $6.5 billion provided by the Senate for biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health. But the two main agencies that support the physical sciences - National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science - were not so favoured. In the Senate bill, they get only $1.2 billion and $330 million respectively, compared to $3 billion and $2 billion in the House version.

So how come the physical sciences ALWAYS get the short end of the stick? I've never had any politician flat out explain this. It's not something they can't deny since we have all the evidence these past few years.



Doug Natelson said...

As a colleague of mine with govt. science policy put it, Congressmen and Senators all have breasts and/or a prostate. That's why. Crass, but true. The day we physical sciences can make a case to the average congresscritter as compelling as, "We are trying to cure you when you get sick", then we'll come out ahead.

Peter Morgan said...

So I guess X-rays, accelerators, lasers, etc., don't count. Electronics, not that either. None of those are used in medicine.

Presentation counts, however. Physicists have become used to gee whiz justifications, but the point for everyone else is that understanding lets us control stuff. Why do we build big accelerators? Because in 50 years time we will have version 10 in common use and on a desktop. Why not let someone else do it, then pick it up later? Research is freely available in journals to everyone, after all. Because confidence and experience in depth over time make a big difference, and because we installed a system of copyrights and patents to let us exploit ideas when they become practical (which will be exploited by other countries).

Confidence is a very long-term issue that I think is too rarely mentioned. In England, confidence that the English could do almost anything better than anyone else was endemic for a few hundred years. It slipped for all sorts of reasons, but once confidence does slip getting it back is a big project. Are US scientists and engineers confident they can do stuff better than anyone else? Not as much as they used to be. What effect does that have on 50 years time? A lot. This a fundamental infrastructure and deferred maintenance issue.