Two realities: science and the federal budget

Image via Thinkstock.

Image via Thinkstock.

Last week I met with asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence W. D. Kay, hoping for a primer on the fed­eral budget. I keep hearing terms like seques­tra­tion and appro­pri­a­tions and wanted to find out exactly how they will affect the future of sci­ence research.

Before we got into it, he pointed me to this peti­tion, which sur­faced a couple months ago. More than 34,000 Amer­i­cans were hoping for a real-​​life Star Wars–style Death Star. Turns out that won’t be hap­pening any time soon: Not only would it cost $850 quadrillion, writes Paul Shaw­cross, chief of the Sci­ence and Space Branch of the Office of Man­age­ment and Budget, “the Admin­is­tra­tion does not sup­port blowing up planets.” Well, that’s a relief.

In the offi­cial White House response, Shaw­cross explains that offi­cials are “working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.” While I’m sure that’s true, Kay’s descrip­tion of the budget cycle makes me wonder if their work is in vain. “The budget cycle has been cob­bled together over many years,” he told me. What we’ve got sounds rather inef­fec­tive, espe­cially when it comes to sci­en­tific research.

Here’s the problem, according to Kay: politi­cians and sci­en­tists speak two dif­ferent lan­guages and live in two dif­ferent real­i­ties. The words “long term” mean very dif­ferent things to the two tribes. Every 12 months, on Oct.1, a new budget with new spending struc­tures should come into effect (more on the reality of that in a moment). But basic research has a much longer incu­ba­tion time. The ben­e­fits don’t pay off soon enough for politicians—whose reality is a 12-​​month budget cycle and two– to four-​​year term cycles.

On top of the time­line prob­lems, there’s also an issue of bal­ancing pri­or­i­ties. The fed­eral budget is really a col­lec­tion of smaller bud­gets, each sub­mitted by the var­ious gov­ern­ment agen­cies from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion to the National Endow­ment for the Arts. Between October 1st and Jan­uary, pro­posals from the agen­cies flood con­gress where they’re sent to one of 13 appro­pri­a­tions com­mit­tees, which have the unen­vi­able job of reviewing these requests and making adjustments.

Some of these com­mit­tees make sense, like the one ded­i­cated solely to defense spending and the one just for agriculture-​​related agen­cies. But others are totally wonky: The NSF is lumped in with NASA, Housing and Urban Devel­op­ment, and Veteran’s Affairs. “This means strange bed­fel­lows get cre­ated,” said Kay. Things like inter­na­tional space sta­tions are bal­anced against home­less shelters.

At the same time, it cre­ates waste because poten­tially mutual inter­ests get over­looked. For example, when Kay was researching policy sur­rounding fusion energy sci­ence, he heard people say things like this: “If you give us a bil­lion dol­lars a year for thirty years, we could do it,” he told me. “The cost of one B1 bomber would be enough to solve fusion energy,” he clar­i­fied. But that tradeoff would never happen because defense and energy spending are man­aged by two dif­ferent subcommittees.

No one planned it this way,” said Kay. “It’s an absolute mess.”

Okay, so fine, we’ve got a mess of a budget cycle, but at least we’ve got a budget, right? Not really. Ear­lier I men­tioned that every Oct. 1 the gov­ern­ment should have a new budget in hand for the ripe young fiscal year. But rarely does it meet that dead­line. Right now we’re still oper­ating on the FY12 budget.

If the two par­ties can’t find any common ground, they just create some­thing vague like this,” said Kay, refer­ring to seques­tra­tion. On Jan. 1, auto­matic spending cuts were sup­posed to start wiping the budget clean of all sorts of things. Any­thing that wasn’t “sacro­sanct,” like money for active-​​duty troops, was vul­ner­able. This was the fiscal cliff and it was on everyone’s mind for a while.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, Con­gress just pushed back the dead­line to stave off dis­aster. Now the big day to worry about is March 1.

If Con­gress doesn’t agree on a fed­eral budget before then, a host of national programs—including those of the NSF, the National Insti­tutes of Health, the Depart­ment of Defense, and the Depart­ment of Energy, the big spenders when it comes to sci­en­tific research—will see an 8.4 per­cent decrease in their indi­vidual bud­gets. For researchers, that trans­lates to a total loss of $57.5 bil­lion through 2017.

How­ever, Kay told me, “gov­ern­ment has broken the hearts of sci­en­tists before.”

During World War II and the years that fol­lowed, sci­en­tific research enjoyed a period of unbri­dled ded­i­ca­tion and funding. Between 1950 and 1960, total defense-​​related R&D spending jumped from $9.6 bil­lion to $23 bil­lion, while non-​​defense R&D went from $2.6 to $7.4 bil­lion. So when projects began to be rejected in the ‘60s under Pres­i­dent Truman, sci­en­tists across the nation were stunned.

The war effort had seen a flurry of new tech­nolo­gies, including the mass pro­duc­tion of peni­cillin, radar detec­tion, and even DDT. Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt appointed Van­nevar Bush of MIT to manage it all. And when the war ended in 1945, Bush advo­cated for a per­ma­nent infra­struc­ture to con­tinue sup­porting sci­en­tific research. He estab­lished what would even­tu­ally become the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, but not long after Truman took office and that period of luxury ended. Truman needed a bal­anced budget, not a new pesticide.

Bush argued that basic research was the foun­da­tion of a pros­perous nation. Government’s role was to fund it, even if the payoff was decades down the line. If he’d had his way, sci­en­tists would have free reign over their funds and would have been answer­able to know one—a model that had essen­tially been in place during the days of the Man­hattan Project. He had to settle for what he got: A budget struc­ture that fits squarely inside the annual cycle I described earlier.

While an $850 quadrillion Death Star obvi­ously ludi­crous, what else do we forego by cut­ting sci­ence spending? Bush may have said we’re putting the very foun­da­tion of the sci­en­tific process, and by exten­sion national growth, on the line.