Thursday, February 12, 2009

Whew, again.

Thankfully, my bad feeling was off-base. According to Speaker Pelosi's summary of the conference committee version of the stimulus (word document here), the NSF will end up with $3B, DOE Office of Science gets $1.6B, there will be an ARPA-E with $400M, NIST will get $580M, NIH will get $8.5B (more than the entire NSF annual budget, by a good fraction) for research and an additional $1.5B for university facilities; and NASA will get $1B, with $400M of that targeted for climate research.

Now all they have to do is actually pass this thing.

I know that many people out there have philosophical objections to this kind of investment being done in a stimulus bill (as opposed to a regular appropriation). I also know that big one-time spikes in funding can be disruptive and harmful in the long term. Still, this is the first decent investment in the physical sciences in years, and it's hard for me to feel misgivings about it given that we've given more than TEN TIMES the total up there in taxpayer dollars to prop up just AIG.


Joerg Heber said...

Hi Doug

Glad events took this turn. In the long-term however, one needs to reflect what caused this NSF funding roller-coaster ride.

I don't think blaming a few stupid employees of theirs does it. The cuts made in the Senate seem to reflect a deeper conviction that research into physical sciences just isn't as "valuable" to the economy/society as medical one?

Obviously, this is a shame. We need to remind politicians more on what the technological benefits of fundamental research in the physical sciences are. The tranistor is probably a worn out example, and so might be the (semiconductor) laser. But it is these kind of devices that come out of it - with huge boosts to progress and development.

gs said...

Glad to hear it, Doug, even though the NSF, DOE and NIST run "obscure programs". (Note also the tone of exasperation in Craig Barrett's letter to lawmakers.)
OT, regarding that obscure physics thingy you occasionally blog about: Your emerging series of expositions on condensed-matter topics is worthwhile and promising. I hope you continue with it and with 'this week in cond-mat'. Two thoughts:

1. Consider collating the tutorial and this-week posts with Blogger tags.

2. I like your classical analogies, e.g. in the polaron post. Perhaps it also merits being explicit about when a classical analogy fails and an effect is intrinsically quantum mechanical.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

this is great news, and I am not exactly sure as to how getting a spike in funding is a bad thing. It's a bit like children complaining that if you give them $10 for ice cream, it's actually bad for them because they will suffer from you not giving them $10 the next day, so they are better off without any money altogether.

NSF, DOE and other science agencies need to do a better job at making their case to the public - why science is important and how much we owe as society to developments in science and technology. Compare 19th century or early 20th century to now. What impact did science and technology have on society? How much of GDP is it worth it NOT to live in 19th century? 1%? 0.1%?

Massimo (formerly known as Okham) said...

IP, one reason why it would be preferable to have the same amount distributed over a longer period of time is that when there is short-term availability against a background of gloomy, long-term uncertainty, the tendency is that of seizing the opportunity by buying, hiring, and building as much as possible.
In these situations, to keep standards high is difficult.
To be very concrete, if you give me the possibility of filling three faculty positions over the next six months, and then wait for ten years before my next hire, I shall probably find three people to hire, even though maybe only one of them was worth going for. On the other hand, if I know that every three years or so I can hire someone, then I shall try and hire the best possible person each time.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

Massimo - agreed, the gradual steady dose of funding over long term would provide better return, while some fraction of rapid one-time injection of funding will be wasted.

However, some (hopefully sizeable) fraction of money will be of great use to us, and it's better to have it than not to have it.

Furthermore, the nature of stimulus package implies this is a one-time expenditure, aimed at spending the money quickly as to provide shock-therapy for economy (and as secondary benefit to provide some long-term return on this one-time investment), so any talk about stretching stimulus out is irrelevant.

From purely economic standpoint, spent money is spent money, even if it is spent on scientific projects that do not provide very high quality returns. But then again, who is to say that some project is not going to be high-quality - just because it wouldn't be normally funded?

I am getting rather skeptical that we can all come to consensus as to what separates good proposal from bad proposal - in terms of scientific goals. Mostly it's a matter of packaging (badly written proposal vs. well-written, structured and justified proposal), but who knows - maybe some crazy, high-risk/high-return, unsubstantiated idea has as good chance of success as some incremental, well-justified progress. I am not sure.

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