Science Budget: Bad News Masquerading as Good.

So now we know. If you believe…if you have faith…or perhaps if you just can suspend your disbelief for one more time, then the news out of the Lame Duck Presidential budget request is actually pretty good for science.

The NSF request comes to $6.85 billlion — up $822 mill over the actual 2008 allocation. (Reality check — that wouldn’t cover three days of Iraq/Afghanistan operations, but, hey, its an increase, isn’t it? Actually, more on this theme below.)

Some details: the request covers another 7o0 graduate student fellowships over 2008 actuals of 2375. New faculty don’t do so well — about an 8 percent increase in funding earmarked for young investigators. Research grants go up by 16% — improving funding rates to an astounding 23% from 21%.

Some areas get targeted boosts: computationally enabled research in a handful of (to my mind) rather fuzzily defined areas just more than doubles to a cool $100 mill. Understanding fresh water dynamics (a non-trivial problem IMHO) gets a $10 million dollar jump-start…and so on. Click the link (above and here) for more details.

Other federal research funds got some props too. DOE’s Office of Science gets an almost 20% jump over 2008 actuals to $4.7 billion — and the rest of DOE, a funder of a fair amount of applied research through its other divisions, got a slight overall boost — with some robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I’ll post more on other agencies as I get my hands on (and have time to process) some of the numbers; hopefully I can link to the good work of others for most of the details.

But, of course, all this is really an exercise in cruelty, for at least two reasons.

The first is the lie inherent in the happy talk coming out of the various agencies about the brave new increases. Notice the careful use of the phrase “over 2008 actual appropriations” or its variations. The budget request for the last fiscal year came out in February 2007, just like this year’s 2009 request. The actual appropriation did not come until days before Christmas, and as documented elsewhere on this blog and many other places, it was a disastrous compromise for much basic science.

That is: last year’s NSF request came to for 6.43 billion dollars. The appropriation shrank to right around 6 billion — or just a hair above the 2007 appropriation of 5.916 billion, which was itself just a $400 million bump after two years of nearly-level funding. The DOE Office of Science increase — even if it survives, will still leave funding there flat for the last decade, and will not be able to prevent the gutting of high energy physics executed by the 2008 final budget.

The take-home? These numbers form a platform from which to lobby your reps and senators — and by all means do that. But no one should plan on spending any of these “increases” anytime soon. The odds are good that much or all of this new money is vaporware.

But all of this actually pales besides the second lie in the happy talk agency press releases. The whole budget is a fiction, a fantasy — actually a nightmare.

The reality is that while the package that ultimately comes out of Congress probably won’t be quite as bad as the worst of what’s being proposed here, the cost of the war and the interest to be paid on the deficit piled up in the Bush years will limit any real chance of doing very much — including substantially improving our national commitment to scientific, technological and medical education and research.

For analyses by people who actually know something about federal budgets, troll happily through the blogosphere. Here are a few links to start you on the ride: see Brad Delong’s take here; Yglesias’ here; Econobrowser’s, posting a wire-service analysis, here. The last is the most depressing, because it contains a few hints of some of the fictions hidden within fictions in the President’s message as it stands — most notably, a bald understatement of likely Iraq war costs.

And that, in the end, is the point. Paul Krugman has many attributes. Among them: he can count to more than the sum of his fingers and his toes. Here, he schools anyone who doubted it what are the drivers of the Bush budget history — and with it the decline of American global primacy: Defense, Medicare, Medicaid.

That’s it. Kevin Drum gives Krugman’s take a little nuance here and here and Fred Kaplan drills down into the madness contained within the defense request here, but in essence, these are all different snapshots of the same train wreck.

The Iraq war itself is now up to a running cost that doesn’t leave much change out of half a trillion dollars — and that in not quite five years. The total cost of the war is expected to run much higher — well in excess of a trillion. That’s where we — or at least those of us with the power to do so — have chosen to spend ours and our children’s (and their children’s) cash.

Given that, non-defense discretionary spending will be sucking fumes for the foreseeable future, and that means that no one planning a career should count on significant improvements in science, math, health and technology support from the feds.

What does this do to the long term economic health (and security) of the United States?

I certainly am no prophet. I don’t know for sure, of course. But I’ll stick my neck out this far:

Nothing good.

Images: The first frontispiece in The Writings of Charles Dickens volume 4, Oliver Twist, titled “The Attempted Burglary.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bombardment and Capture of Island Number Ten on the Mississippi River, April 7, 1862 (no political comment here — just a nice historical look at the skill and inventiveness Americans have brought to the art of blowing stuff up.)

Source: Official U.S. Navy Photograph. Photo #: KN-969 (Color) http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-c/conestga.htm.

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One Comment on “Science Budget: Bad News Masquerading as Good.”


  1. Didn’t Linda Bilmes come up with a range of $1T to $2T a year ago, when you account for resupplying depleted armaments, interest costs, and care for veterans? Even at $500B, we’re well beyond the point of real money, not to mention the missed opportunity to owe less to our many creditors, especially the PRC.


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