20 September 2010

Science Funding and the Political Mood in the US

Not long ago I pointed to the effects of fiscal downsizing on UK science policy.  While the US is not currently embarking on such a dramatic fiscal tightening, the current political atmosphere is such that any mention of expanding federal spending appears taboo, even in the usually bipartisan area of science.

Consider this exchange between AAAS ScienceInsider and Eric Lander, co-chair of President Obama's council of advisors on science and technology or PCAST, as chronicled on the ScienceInsider blog:
Lander, head of the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, teamed with physicist James Gates Jr. of the University of Maryland, College Park, to lead a 19-member panel that spent more than a year examining ways to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in U.S. elementary and secondary schools. Here's what the report itself says about how the programs should be funded:
Many of the recommendations in this report can be carried out with existing Federal funding. Some of the recommendations could be funded in part through existing programs, although new authorities may be required in certain cases. Depending on these choices, the new funding required to fully fund the recommendations could reach up to approximately $1 billion per year. ... Not all of this funding must come from the Federal budget. We believe that some of the funding can come from private foundations and corporations, as well as from states and districts.
And here's how Lander, in an e-mail to Insider, interprets that paragraph:
It means that the cost could be ZERO if existing authorities are sufficient (as I think they are) or new authorities allowing existing appropriations to be used are created (in the event that the existing ones are not). If not (that is, if folks decide not to use existing authorities/funds), it could cost up to $1b — much of which would/could be nonfederal. As I told you, my guess is that virtually no new money is needed because I think the authorities are already broad enough.
The distinction could be important in the current political climate. Although the idea of boosting STEM education enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, Republicans have sharply criticized the tens of billions more in overall federal spending on education during the Obama Administration. They also take a dim view of the idea of giving Washington a bigger role in an area that constitutionally is the province of state and local government, as well as any proposed growth in the federal bureaucracy.
In a follow-up Q&A Lander uses some strong words:
Lander: Where in the world do you get the idea that we call for $1 billion in new spending? . . .

SI: So when the press release says that "fully funding all of the recommendations could require investments of approximately $1 billion a year"...

Lander:  I don't care about the press release. Read the report. ...
While it is important for the scientific community to advocate for more funding for its various interests, it appears that at the moment in the US, the political atmosphere means that it is far more important to avoid scoring an own goal as the Tea Party lurks.