Science and stimulus

The Senate is considering removing a bunch of science funding from the stimulus package.  I don’t pretend to know much about the economics, and I freely admit that as someone who gets funded by NSF I have an interest in this, but still I’d like to argue that removing these funds is a bad idea.

You want shovel-ready?  It’s hard to get much more shovel-ready than an NSF grant.  A lot of the money in a typical grant goes to fund jobs for several people, including students and postdocs, who will start work pretty much right away.  Some goes to equipment, which again will start to be spent pretty quickly.

Some of the money goes to overhead for the host institution.  When that’s a public university, that’s a great outcome too, as these universities are going to be squeezed by state budget cuts and an increase in students taking shelter from the job market. In the case where the host institution is a rich private university, I’ll grant that sending overhead there isn’t necessarily the highest priority, although it’s far from the worst thing you can do with the money.  Anyway, public universities that really need the money far outweigh rich private schools that don’t.

In addition to being shovel-ready, of course you want the money to go to worthwhile things.  I’ll just point out that a strong case can be made that funding basic science is an investment that pays back in future economic growth.

Finally, let me point out that there are a lot of great grant proposals being submitted to the funding agencies that are denied, not for lack of merit but for lack of funds.  The first link above says that 1/4 of NSF proposals are funded.  I’ve been on several grant review panels in the past few years, and it’s always been more like 1/6.  Believe me, there are a lot of extremely worthy ideas in some of the unfunded 5/6 of the proposals.

Now’s a good time to write and call your senator to let them know what you think about science funding.  People I’ve talked to in Washington say that calls like this really do make a difference. If you’re in Virginia, your senators are Mark Warner (202-224-2023) and Jim Webb (202-224-4024).  If you’re not in Virginia, you can look up how to contact your senators.

Update: The compromise bill passed by the Senate includes most of the original science funding.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!