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Stimulus for scientists

In Policy on February 9, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Since President Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” researchers have been hopeful that the new economic stimulus package will include a boost to science. Fortunately, the bill includes funds for basic research: $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, $40 billion for the Department of Energy, and more than $1 billion each for NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is significantly down from the more generous House package, though: the NSF funding, for instance, has been cut from $3 billion to $1 billion.

It’s important to note that this is a package of more than $800 billion. The cost of funding science is pretty minor in comparison. But research — even and especially basic research — drives future productivity. Cosmic Variance makes the point that we’re not going to get the much vaunted revolution in green energy without some physicists (like those at Princeton’s own Plasma Physics Lab.) Basic research is an investment in the future, in the jobs that don’t exist yet.

Now there’s a fair argument that a stimulus package is the wrong place to put science spending, because of its emphasis on speed. The NSF has to allocate all its funds in three months. That’s an really tight schedule, and it almost guarantees a slapdash approach to funding. Maybe a decade-long commitment to more science funding would be better than a windfall in the stimulus package. On the other hand, politics is an imperfect endeavor, and this may be science’s best bet.

Back during the campaign, University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate Jim Heckman articulated his hopes that an Obama administration would focus on a “future-oriented society”:

The real question apart from the current turmoil is the longer run. Denying the value of investment in knowledge; in infrastructure; in basic science and education at all levels has been and will continue to be harmful to our long run health. In my mind Obama’s eyes are fixed more on things that will improve the US economy in the next century.

( Whole thing here.)

Let’s hope that the bill that’s likely to pass on Tuesday — and science funding over the next four years — lives up to that standard.<

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  1. Given the life cycle of scientific research, properly conducted dispersal of these funds will take years: it will take many months to review even the first batch of grants, and spending on research will take place over time, not instantaneously. To make this spending “stimulatory,” it will have to be rushed through, and the quality of the spending will fall in direct proportion.

    To the extent that science is a public good that should be funded by government – and I believe that we could certainly use more funding, on the margin, for basic science research – proponents of this bill are basically not hoping for much from this particular measure, but rather banking on this package to increase the baseline for science funding in the future.

    Is this the best we can hope for? Perhaps, given the nature of budgetary politics. But it’s a highly imperfect solution; we are essentially washing our hands on what will inevitably be either a wasteful or economically ineffective measure. And if you believe this logic, the same argument may well apply in areas, such as entitlement or infrastructure spending, where we do not want a permanently higher level of spending. In that case we will get the same bargain – wasteful spending plus expectations of this level of spending in the future.

    • Very true. Science is like infrastructure: if it’s done well, it takes time, and therefore isn’t very good stimulus. If it’s done quickly, it’s more likely to be wasteful. But I don’t think politics makes these fine gradations — anything anyone wants funded is going to get a spot in the stimulus bill. I’m more concerned that research funding gets a more prominent and successful voice in budget negotiations over the next few years. (That is, I’m writing with my rent-seeking hat on.)

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