Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A (serious) modest proposal

Hopefully someone in the vast (ahem.) readership of this blog will pass this along to someone with connections in the Obama transition team. I've already submitted this idea to change.gov, but who knows the rate at which that gets read.

As part of the forthcoming major economic stimulus package, I propose that the Obama administration fully fund the America Competes initiative immediately. If the goal of the package is to stimulate the economy while doing something for the long-term health of the country (e.g., creating jobs while fixing roads, bridges, etc.), then funding basic research via the various agencies is a great thing to do. Think about it: the US spends less as a percentage of GDP than most of the rest of the developed world on science research. Rectifying that to some degree would (a) help the long-term prospects for technological innovation in the US; (b) create jobs; (c) support the goal of developing energy-related technologies; (d) support our universities, many of which are getting hammered by falling state revenues and/or poor endowment returns. Best of all, you could do all of this and it would be a freakin' bargain! You could double the research funding in NSF, NIH, DOE, NASA, and NIST, and not even come close to the amount of money we've already given to AIG. I'm suggesting something far more modest and much less disruptive. Seriously, ask yourself what's better for the long-term health of the country. Cutting basic science to pay for propping up Goldman Sachs is perverse.

Update: If you think that this is a good idea, I encourage you to submit your suggestion here, here, and/or here.


Uncle Al said...

Vast monies must pour into the Liberal Arts and soft sciences, particularly diversity studies. Science and engineering raped the Earth, plunging 5 billion people into abject poverty. We must forcibly return to the ideological, theological, and ecological purity of the Middle Ages. All was bright and beautiful, all fuels were renewable, and any woman surviving past 40 was burned as a witch.

45 years of income redistribution and social engineering beginning with President Johnson's Great Society are explicit: if the productive retain any of their stolen boons the whole world suffers. Government must be in charge of everything.

Either the Officially Sad grow fat in plush Federal cocoons as the world dies or everybody must be personally responsible for their lives without a safety net. If you think things are expensive now, just wait and see what they cost when they are free.

ARL said...

I agree with most of your proposal. But how will it create jobs? More grad students and few faculty positions is not really creating jobs.

Doug Natelson said...

ARL, a good (though loaded) question with some subtle answers. Your question basically assumes that the only reasonable career path for grad students is academia.

First, there would be some long term "permanent" job creation; this kind of spending could, for example, be used to create real staff lines at DOE labs. Second, there would be some short-term job creation via soft-money research positions (research faculty; postdocs; even grad students if you consider those as short-term employment). Third, there would be higher order effects - healthy academic research = more patents = more startup companies. Remember, fiscal stimulous job programs are not usually intended to create permanent jobs per se. The WPA wasn't set up to train a generation of bridge-builders. Rather, the idea is to keep people gainfully employed and ideally prepare them for a long term job that will become available when the economy recovers. If we truly think that the only place grad students can go is academia, then this isn't a good plan for job creation. However, if we think that grad students can, e.g., go work for or create high tech companies when the credit markets recover in five years, then this is, IMO, not a bad investment at all.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize with thinking science rocks, but I'm not so sure more science jobs is good for this situation, now. [sure, it's probably good for the long haul].

The people who are losing their jobs are the ones that need to be targeted, because that turns families and communities upside down. And as someone pointed out... on some blog I read... the ones that can do science aren't the ones in trouble now.

A lot of the money that's gone to companies isn't a grant, it's a loan. An investment. Further words about research and services being properly priced, up to subsidy... blah blah.

Doug Natelson said...

Anon., do you really believe that the government is going to get the lion's share of the financial bailout money back? Really? The government has already massively redefined the terms of the "loan" given to AIG multiple times, all in favor of propping up AIG and delaying or reducing the eventual return on "investment".

I agree that the people losing their jobs need help, and it's clear that they're going to get some - extensions of unemployment benefits; large jobs programs related to infrastructure. I'm talking about an additional effective investment in the long term competitiveness of our high tech industries. Clearly companies, especially now, are unlikely to have the spare capital to invest in research with potential returns a decade or more away. In my view, the whole point of an infrastructure-related stimulus is the idea that if you're going to use the government to pump the economy, you might as well do something long-term smart (repairing bridges; investing in new battery technology research) rather than something stupid (rewarding financial companies for utterly misunderstanding their risk exposure).

Incoherent Ponderer said...

I agree! The answer is, as Tom Friedman and other keep saying ad nauseum, is energy - green jobs/economy, climate change, middle east - it's all connected.

Injecting a LOT of money in the energy/materials research may just be the answer to getting thousands of green start-ups all over the country.

And it is incredibly cheap in grand scheme of things - a bargain really!

sylow said...

If your treasury secretary was a scientist that could happen. But with Hank Paulson as treasury secretary, are you surprised that they care more about Goldman Sachs? He is after all the former CEO of Goldman Sachs...

CarlBrannen said...

Main street pays the bills for science. The reverse has never been the case. When the banks are sick, they take priority, because without them, business collapses.

The other side of the problem is deflation. To fix that, the government will send checks out to poor people. Poor people spend all the money you give them and so giving money to poor people is very effective at helping the economy. Upper class people (like scientists) save money and are not as effective at fighting inflation, in terms of bang for the buck.

When Obama does put money into research, it's going to be for green energies, not physics per se. And by the way, before you conclude that global warming really is a threat to the planet, it might be a good idea to see what the premier science institution on the planet, CERN, says about the subject by reading a few of their papers.

A place to start is with the 2000 proposal for the CLOUD collaboration experiment, and their latest progress report, from April 2008, which includes data taken that indicates that the sunspot cycle effects cloud formation, a fact that is not included in the models promoting CO2-global warming fears.

Massimo aka Okham said...

I am sure that opposite views can be reasonably held on long and short term economic impact of massive government investment in basic science. However, it would seem that, historically, the periods of greatest economic expansion (for just about any industrialized country) have also been characterized by such investment. The latest example is China, together with other far eastern countries.

DanM said...

Doug, in which section of change.gov did you make this immodest proposal? I have the feeling that the more voices in the chorus, the more attention will be paid.

Doug Natelson said...

Dan - I did this in "Technology", though I see now that there is a specific mention of science under "Additional Issues". I'm also going to submit it under "Economy".

Anonymous said...

I like to have at hand some numbers when reasoning through these issues:

-- The federal government is expected to spend $25.2 billion funding R&D
efforts in 2008, a 1.16 percent increase over the $24.9 billion spent in 2007
-- Industrial investments in R&D are expected to reach $258.7 billion in 2008,
an increase of 3.4 percent over 2007 levels of $250.3 billion
-- Academia and other non-profits are expected to expend $70.5 billion on R&D
in 2008. Academia is forecasted to increase by 5.3 percent from $51.9 billion
in 2007 to $54.6 billion in 2008. Non-profit expenditures on R&D are expected
to increase by 4.3 percent from $15.3 billion in 2007 to $16 billion in 2008
-- Federally Funded Research & Development Centers (FFRDC) is a new category
to the annual R&D Forecast. The 36 centers are established by various
government agencies and are designed to carry out special long-term research
programs on behalf of their parent agencies. Funding for 2007 was $12.7
billion which is expected to drop by 2.3 percent to $12.4 percent in 2008.



Massimo aka Okham said...

I like to have at hand some numbers when reasoning through these issues:
Source: http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS221001+14-Feb-2008+PRN20080214

Actually, the source is Battelle. Are their forecasts particularly reliable, especially in these times ? It's an honest question...

Anonymous said...

Here are some additional numbers:

NSF writes:

"National Science Foundation (NSF) estimates indicate that U.S. spending on research and development
(R&D) totaled $368.1 billion (current dollars) in 2007, up from $347.9 billion in 2006 (table 1). This increase represented growth in 2007 of 5.8% over the 2006 level, or 3.1% in inflation-adjusted year 2000 dollars.
This inflation-adjusted (“real”) pace of growth in R&D expenditures outpaced that for gross domestic product (GDP): 2.2% growth in real GDP in 2007, compared with 3.1% for R&D. These 2007 results followed the pattern of the two prior years: 4.4% growth in real R&D expenditures in 2006, compared with 2.9% for real GDP; 4.3% growth in real R&D expenditures in 2005, compared with 3.1% for real GDP.
Total R&D expenditures in 2007 were some $9.1 billion higher in real dollars than in 2006. Nearly all of this increase reflected greater R&D expenditures by industry. NSF’s estimates indicate that the federal government’s overall spending on R&D declined somewhat
in real dollar terms in 2007."

in NSF 08-317.

More details are here:

Anonymous said...

I don't believe this statement is correct:

"[T]he US spends less as a percentage of GDP than most of the rest of the developed world on science research."

For instance, see:

But also, it appears to me that no country spends as much as the US on research & development.