Friday, March 06, 2009

Shovel-Ready Science

With the stimulus bill passed and with boatload of money about to be spent by various science agencies, this article looks at all the possibilities and long-term consequences of the sudden windfall to science.

Some 70,000 of those rescued Americans will be helped by the $10 billion awarded at the last minute to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to Research!America, a lobbying group supported by universities, hospitals, and others to do heavy-duty lobbying for biomedical funding. Thousands more jobs will result, presumably, from the $3 billion dished out to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and from the $1.5 billion given to the Department of Energy. All told, science gets a $21.5 billion share of the bounty. The number of science jobs that will be created or saved is not yet clear, because part of the money will go to facilities and equipment. Nor can anyone say yet who will get the jobs or how long they will last.

The issue of being able to sustain at least a decent level of funding is crucial. One can't just throw a lot of money at one time, and then dramatically reduces funding in subsequent years. Such yo-yo effect can be as devastating to scientific work as no funding. The uncertainty prevents researchers from making any long term plan, which is crucial in any difficult and complex activities.

NSF's emerging plans aside, the stimulus package awards one-time bonanzas that must be spent in 2 years. Much of the money awarded via grants and supplements will support graduate students, postdocs, and technicians. If science agencies' funding returns to pre-stimulus levels or something close, then what happens to all those postdocs, technicians, and students hired for the interim? What happens to the lab chiefs who hired them? The science labor market would almost certainly repeat the disastrous crash that followed the end of the doubling.

If funding remains flush, however, the new jobs could stick around. So the key question is whether the stimulus money for science represents a one-time splurge--as big-government critics hope--or a down payment on larger future budgets--as many scientists and policymakers might wish.

We shall see what will happen. The current president has shown a willingness to aggressively fund basic science. Whether he and the legislative body can agree on a budget is another issue entirely.


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