The Great Debate and the Death of Science (in the USA)

OK — so that’s hyperbole, by a wide margin.

But the one thing that last night’s debate between the irrecoverably mendacious McCain, and the amazingly calm Obama confirmed for me is that the large subset of basic scientific research conducted in the US funded by the government is in deep trouble.  It’s fate is likely worse, by a wide margin under a McCain presidency than under the administration of President Obama, but hard times are coming, folks; start your canning and get to splitting your cord wood.

How did I learn this?  There was actually one piece of policy news made last night, that makes something I’ve argued to be true for a while now blindingly obvious.

As the situationally astute Marc Ambinder pointed out, that bit of news was McCain’s call for a spending freeze in the non-defense, non-entitlement, non veterans affairs rump of government departments.  Ygelsias has already highlighted the economic and budgetary nonesense of the proposal.

To take that idea at face value, a spending freeze would leave intact the budget priorities established over eight years of Bush administration benign and malign neglect of science.  See this post for a brief review of the numbers behind that bleak assessment.

In the linked post, I also argued that McCain’s budget priorities, as laid out in his own words on the stump and on his website required that there would be no new money for science — nothing to reverse the flat or real-dollar drop in federal support for science under Bush (i.e. — the Bush administration has supported funding just keeping up with inflation for most of its tenure, and called for a real-dollar drop in the most recent budget).

In fact, the implications of McCain’s stated fiscal* intentions are worse than that:  to achieve his tax and cost-cutting goals, along with his pursuit of increased military spending, most or all non-defense discretionary spending would have to go, including federal support for science.  That was all before the mortgage-backed-securities (note — not sub-prime, please) mess came along.

As Jim Lehrer noted last night, cleaning up that mess is going to have an knock on impact on the budget.  McCain’s response was an earmark crusade, pursuit of all those government agencies wasting money, and his promise of level funding, barring those increases still promised for defense and veterans affairs — which is, again, a cut when inflation is factored in.

It’s not hard to see, given McCain’s disdain for sequencing bear DNA — a snark repeated last night–that science agencies have reason to fear being deemed wasteful. (It’s true that he does not seem to mind investigating the genetic code of the seal, for what possible reason, I wonder?)

So, should McCain win, the upcoming budget crater will be navigated by a person and a member of a party that together has a history of taking whacks at science.  Given that, I see no reason to doubt that federal science under McCain would suffer not just a freeze, but an dollar number as well as an inflationary hit.

Obama promises better.  In the economic portion of the debate he said

The third thing we have to do is we’ve got to make sure that we’re competing in education. We’ve got to invest in science and technology. China had a space launch and a space walk. We’ve got to make sure that our children are keeping pace in math and in science.

But at the same time he acknowledged the reality:

There’s no doubt it will affect our budgets. There is no doubt about it. Not only — Even if we get all $700 billion back, let’s assume the markets recover, we’ holding assets long enough that eventually taxpayers get it back and that happened during the Great Depression when Roosevelt purchased a whole bunch of homes, over time, home values went back up and in fact government made a profit. If we’re lucky and do it right, that could potentially happen but in the short term there’s an outlay and we may not see that money for a while.

And because of the economy’s slowing down, I think we can also expect less tax revenue so there’s no doubt that as president I’m go doing have to make some tough decisions.

He’ll try, that is; he understands the importance of not eating your seed corn.  But the last eight years of ordinary Bush/GOP (McCain supported) budget profligacy has just been turbocharged, and the blunt reality is that it will be a struggle for any part of the federal discretionary budget to hold its own.

Obama’s point about tax revenues holds for the states as well, of course, so there is not much real hope of any cushioning of the blow, even for public universities, at that level of government.

It gets worse:

Last Thursday or so, I ran into a senior member of the MIT adminstration this week, someone deeply involved in funding and running the research side of the Institute, and he pointed out the obvious:  when the financial system caves and the stock market trembles, private philanthropy suffers too.  So that’s another leg of the science – funding stool getting sawn through as we go.

The net take-home:  hard times are about to get harder for major science research institutions in this country.  That promises, as Sen. Obama acknowledges, to threaten future economic prospects and to undermine our national strength and the ability to project hard and soft power internationally.

And as for what this means for those who value science as a voting issue this November?

Vote Obama, for specific and systemic reasons.

The specific:  even though I think it unlikely science will get an enormous boost, at least in his first couple of budgets, he clearly understands the significance of the enterprise.

The general:  (a) Obama’s economic policies are better than McCain’s, and are more likely to produce more wealth, and hence tax revenue that can be used for federal support for science than those of the opposition.

(b) “a” is no accident:  Democrats have a much, much better record than Republicans as economic stewards by just about any measure of economic performance, from growth, to stock market return, to compressing income inequality.  (Thanks to Brad DeLong for acting as such a prolific one-stop shop for these kinds of data.)

So:  if you like science and want the US to continue looking in to it, just remember:  friends (of science) don’t let friends vote for McCain this November.

*For McCain’s confusion of the terms “fiscal” and “financial” as modifiers for the word “crisis” — and the implications of that error — see this.  It’s important:  while beyond the scope of this post, and probably of this blog’s competence (not that that will stop you — ed.) the mistake reaffirms the suspicion that McCain  has no idea what is happening with the debt/derivative/liquidity crisis and hence would leave the federal response to the problem to some subset of the eighty or so financial sector lobbyists now staffing his campaign.

Images:  Julian Falat, “Snow,” 1907.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Meteor Crater, Arizona. Image by USGS.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad ideas, McCain, Obama, Politics, Republican follies, Science Policy, Who needs science?

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