Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Science and spending freezes

Tonight in the State of the Union address, President Obama will supposedly propose a freeze on discretionary federal spending for the next three years.  For those not familiar with the term, discretionary spending leaves out defense and debt service, as well as social security and medicare, but includes NIH, NSF, DOE, NIST, and NASA.  It will be interesting to see if, after a strong start on recovering from the funding morass (cuts in real dollars for several years in a row under the Bush administration and the budgetary mess from two wars), what will happen to federal scientific research support in such a climate.  Note that Pres. Obama is having this year's Intel Science Talent Search winner as a guest at the address.


Anonymous said...

Do you really believe this stimulus is doing anything beneficial to science? I'd love to hear if you could provide your readers with some specific examples of stimulus money really helping scientific progress. As a professor at a Research 1 university, my experience has been that the stimulus has been a HUGE waste of money that will yield little in terms of scientific progress and cause a public backlash towards the scientific community. ARPA's latest call is for millions of dollar to go to carbon capture technology. This is in addition to the already millions they have spent on this silly technology. The science behind the need for carbon capture is questionable and currently unraveling with every new revelation about the dishonesty of the climate change scientific community. The technological feasibility of carbon capture stands on even shakier ground. These climate change scientists are worse than Hendrik Schon. At least Hendrik Schon didn't spend his short career trying to scare the whole planet about the dangers of molecular crystals or single molecule devices. When the public finally realizes that they have been duped by these "respected" scientists, all of us scientists and engineers will lose out.
As scientists and engineers, we are slowly losing our public trust by spending tax payer money irresponsibly through ridiculous stimulus projects and misrepresenting our data to scare the general public.
This country doesn't need an ARPA-E or a Steven Chu - an expert on atomic physics trying to be a climate and energy expert - run a department that is spending a huge chunk of its money chasing pie in the sky hair brain ideas such as carbon capture.
What this country needs are more Bell Labs type facilities that truly innovate. Does the government run anything remotely close to a Bell Labs type facility? Hell no. I know you were at Bell Labs and have a huge respect for what the facility used to be. From what I have seen, the government just screws science up lately. Go to any government run lab in recent times and see if they are doing anything remotely interesting. They are filled with so much bureaucratic waste that nothing creative is happening there. I was also at Bell Labs for a short time though we never overlapped.
Steven Chu and others seem to think they know how to manage research by identifying supposed "important" projects and handing out money to solve them. In the end they will fail. I don't claim to be an expert on how to manage great research but my gut instinct tells me that the current way we are doing things is doomed to failure. Sorry about my long rant but I am really concerned about the future of science and engineering in this country. Yes I am a registered Republican and DO care very much about science and technology. You know who I am, I am choosing to remain anonymous so that I don't receive the wrath of Steven Chu and others who think they know how to manage research but really don't seem to have much of a clue. I do enjoy your blog even though I disagree with your blind love for the irresponsible Obama administration.

Douglas Natelson said...

Well, I appreciate the comment. Rather than getting into a red vs. blue political argument, I'll limit my response to the issue of federal support of science and industrial support of science.

As I've said before, I think our current financial system actively discourages long-term industrial research and development by companies. Through the 90s in particular our economy evolved into a system that greatly rewards short-term growth. Long-term investment is seen by boards as a waste of money, because it lowers the immediate profits (what do you mean year-over-year growth of our 4th q profits was not 25%??), with uncertain payoff years in the future. Back when investors held stock for long periods, companies were encouraged to structure themselves for long-term growth and stability. Now that institutional investors own most of the stock, they don't care if AT&T is around in five years, as long as something with a similar risk/reward profile exists. I think that this situation is one powerful reason why industrial R&D has either dwindled or become much more D than R. People like Norm Augustine agree with this overall assessment.

Federal investment is one way to try to recoup some "missing" innovation. Is it the best way to get industrial advances? No. Is it going to be as efficiently done as in a company? Probably not. Is it better than not investing at all? Certainly.

Now, honest people can certainly disagree about the "right" level of federal investment in science and engineering, and about the methods used to allocate that investment. I think that decreasing federal investment in science in real dollars over time while industry simultaneously decreases its support for research is a recipe for future malaise. I also think that investment in energy-related topics is a good idea. Fossil fuels are a long-term loser, climate issues aside.

You have many criticisms (we need more Bell Labs-like centers of innovation; our current way of allocating funds is wrong). What are your suggestions for fixing these issues? I think one could do various things w/ the tax structure to favor long-term investment in research by companies, but that appears to be a non-starter. The current funding approach (DOE example: peer review; workshops of experts to help identify topics to agencies) is not optimal, but it's better than many alternatives.

Douglas Natelson said...

One more point. With specific reference to the stimulus, I think that different agencies' approaches are doing varying amounts of good. I think that the stimulus funds used to support, e.g., NSF and DOE graduate fellowships are a good thing. I think NIH's insane challenge grant strategy (let's create a program that generates 20000 proposals when we can only support 200!) is so short-sighted that it causes physical pain. The stimulus is a mixed bag for science, but I'd rather see federal dollars go there than filtering them through AIG to Goldman Sachs.

Schlupp said...

Doug, stupid furrinner's question: Why is defense spending not discretionary? I can see that one cannot simply decide to pay back less on the dept service than one promised and social security has to some extend likewise already been spoken for, but defense?

NONE said...

The news is not bad - Obama's administration apparently still believes in importance of funding fundamental scientific research:


"The newspaper said the budget would include $25 billion for struggling states and provide funding increases for programs at the Energy Department, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Census Bureau.

An administration official confirmed to Reuters that the budget would include a 6 percent increase in civilian research programs."

NONE said...

to respond to first Anonymous:
1. short-term focus of stockholders makes it very difficult if not impossible for companies to focus on long-term problems, like fundamental research or energy technologies. Yes, Lucent was a great model. And what happened to researchers in Lucent?
2. Chu is more of an expert on energy issues than any of his predecessors. His scientific credentials are certainly far more impressive than Richardson's, Abraham's or Bodman's. He was deeply involved in energy issues as the head of LBNL - so it is unfair to characterize him as "just atomic physicist".
3. Yes, national laboratories can be full of red tape, and they could be made more efficient. The same applies to companies using SBIR and STTR grants (I review some of them, so please trust me on this), and to universities. This does not mean that ALL money is wasted. And national labs do GREAT science, and they do plenty of interesting, cutting edge research.
4. A lot of stimulus went to university labs - many of which are de-centralized and less bureaucratic than, say, national labs.
5. NOT spending money on fundamental research in energy is the BEST way NOT get anything done in this area.
6. In grand scheme of things, the stimulus research funding was such a tiny amount. In general DOE-BES or NSF are a small, small fraction of military budget. Yet it is energy innovation that is ultimately connected to jobs, global competitiveness, climate change and dependence on foreign oil. If money represents priorities, how can anyone argue that this should be even LOWER on our list of priorities than it already is?
7. Much of public would agree that any government spending, and spending on science in particular is wasteful. But this couldn't be further from truth. Scientists should be educating the public about the impact science and technology had on the lives of average citizen, and the progress from fundamental discovery to applications.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is back. Sorry it took me so long to reply but I have been busy writing proposals to get money for research from the same organizations that I write on blogs to complain about. My main concern with funding of science and research in this country is that I think it has serious deficiencies. To begin with, we have some misguided view that there aren't enough scientists and engineers and we need to educate more. This is nonsense. A lot of my friends which were educated with PhDs from the top universities in the world couldn't get jobs in science or engineering. We are educating too many Phd students but not providing opportunities beyond that. This country needs less PhD students and more institutes like Bell Labs where post PhD scientists and engineers could work and truly innovate. Point me to one place in the country now that innovates like Bell Labs. Can you even point to a place that innovates like NIST used to?
1. I agree that companies will not sponsor long term research. Only private foundations or government can do it. I just think government can be much more efficient at it than it currently is by encouraging smaller research groups, training less PhD students which means less effort on all the outreach stuff and more efforts on research excellence, and setting up research institutes where postdocs and senior scientists can work with limited bureacracy.
2. My main concern with Chu and others is that the "energy" issue is going to blow up in their faces. Wait a few years and you will see. Rather than focus on just energy or efficient use of natural resources they are focused on other things like human caused climate change which stand on far more shaky scientific ground. When global warming turns out to be a farce the public will feel betrayed. There are better justification for energy research than climate change. Everybody would agree that reliance on middle eastern oil can be problematic. Most people would also agree that lack of clean water is and will be a huge concern in the future. There is not a scientific consensus that human caused climate change and CO2 emissions are dooming the planet as the current administration of Holden and Chu argue constantly. These scare tactics divert resources and threaten the trust that the public has on scientists and engineers. By the way, I enjoy reading your blog incoherent ponderer. I keep trying to guess who you are. Is it still a secret?
I love your blog Doug. Thanks.