Posted tagged ‘Massachusetts’

How not to pay for science…Mass Legislature edition

May 20, 2008

From The Boston Globe today:

The governor’s initial proposal sought to empower a panel of industry specialists and academic leaders to decide how to spend $1 billion over 10 years in several targeted areas, much like a similar program in California. But lawmakers in the Senate and House decided how and where to dole out large portions of the $1 billion that would be spent in the bill, which could emerge from a conference committee as early as this week, earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for specific projects, even giving names to individual buildings and grants.

House lawmakers earmarked $49.5 million to build a science center at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, though the school currently has no science graduate programs. The college is, however, the alma mater of Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat who wrote the House legislation and has frequently joked at press conferences and legislative hearings that “spending $1 billion doesn’t go quite as far as it used to.”

This is how to waste a lot of cash … though of course, that’s not how the state reps see it:

In addition, legislators have designated $12.6 million for a highway interchange near Andover, and $12.9 million for a sewage treatment plant in Framingham, money designed, they said, to spur local development for life sciences companies.

“We are responsible for the public dollars,” said Representative Michael J. Rodrigues, a Democrat from Westport and cochairman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Caucus. “Our job is to spend money where we as legislators feel [it] is necessary.”

Err, yeah…but necessary for what?

The Mass legislature is famously a machine-driven body, so it’s no surprise that Gov. Deval Patrick’s attempts to inject a little rationality into the budget process gets eaten alive.

But this is a symptom of the larger problem that big or biggish science has faced for a while now. At least part of the SSC’s problem, for example, was that it was an example of a kind of mega-earmark, packed off to the open fields of Texas as part of a political game that lost any opportunity to take advantage of whatever economies might have been gained by marrying the new machine to Fermilab’s existing infrastructure. More generally, in this kind of effort, in which the government is trying to pick research targets for their economic potential is a fraught task for anyone, including the academic and industry insiders who were originally to be in charge of spending the state’s cash.

But still, if there are plenty of problems with peer review, including the difficulty new players face in getting potentially valuable ideas funded. But there is no doubt in my mind about two things:

First, that an imperfect system in which knowledgeable insiders try to drive research is better than having a bunch of Beacon Hill horsetraders spend the goodies…and

Second, that the larger issue here is that we have, so far, even in this research-rich, science-intensive Commonwealth of Massachusetts, failed to create the kind of civic science culture we need. It takes suasion, a shared set of assumptions to create circumstances in which it is understood, even beneath the Sacred Cod, that you don’t treat a science funding bill as a public trough.

To put it another way, Gary Hart and Warren Rudman issued a report last year on the state of US science and math education and research. They wrote,

“The inadequacies of our systems of research and education” posed a threat to U.S. national security greater “than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

This is the issue, I think, of which the Mass House display of ordinary venality is only a system. If this view were actually part of the common currency of political conversation, we might actually buy a little knowledge, instead of a sewage treatment plant.

Paying for science means deciding that it is affirmatively worth spending money now on an endeavor in which payoffs come often indirectly and over years.

Easy enough to say, isn’t it. Not so much to do.

(BTW — to recapitulate what I wrote here: this is why McCain is so singularly a bad prospective President for science, and hence, if you buy Hart/Rudman, for our long term national security. He has made a series of promises and policy decisions — especially his lethal combination of much more spending for Middle East wars and the military in general, accompanied by his commitment to exploding deficit tax policies — that means that all US discretionary spending, including all federal science support would have to starve to enable him to keep his word.)

(Also, please note, for those of you who think I may take an excessively partisan view of the world:  this is Democrat on Democrat folly, with the old-line House Democratic Party machine pushing back against yet one more smart, able, idealistic, reformist Democratic Goo-goo governor

Image: William Hogarth, “The Humors of an Election: the Polling,” 1754-55. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.