Although I’m not currently working directly in academia these days, I do maintain an interest in science and how scientific research in our country is maintained. After all, not only might I find myself back one of these days, but I firmly believe that curiosity about how nature works is intrinsic to human nature and our growing understanding of the cosmos is part of our culture as much as art, movies, and music. This and its correlation with global economic competitiveness strongly suggests that our government, on behalf of the people for which it works, should support science, and make decisions based upon the best scientific information available. Earlier I posted about the McCain/Palin approach to science and linked it to the general state of science education. I just saw another excellent discussion along those lines at Cocktail Party Physics I highly recommend reading. How about the current administration?
It probably should come as no surprise that the relationship between Bush and the scientific community has been somewhat rocky. This was amply covered in Chris Mooney’s “The Republican War on Science”. So how can this be reconciled with the information John H. Marburger, science adviser to Bush, wrote at PhysicsWorld.com. In this piece he states that the federal portion in discretionary spending for R&D rose from 12.3% to 12.7%. He seems to be implying throughout his editorial that scientists should be happy that Bush has been supporting science in a major way, especially relative to other countries. After mentioning the need for prioritizing, he dismisses stem cell research and climate change research saying that not only are they contentious, but have little to do with science. Really? Although I agree that a small portion of the scientific community is engaged in this research, it is still science. Science, which is actually not that contentious among the scientific community, and has a big impact on society. Stem cell research possibly leading to new breakthrough medical advances, and effects due to global climate change pretty much go without saying. A big issue here is not just funding though, but the attitude the Bush administration has taken on these politically contentious issues. The problems of muzzling scientists and rewording or even rewriting scientific results to fit wishful policy thinking are well known.
So what about the question of funding? This is discussed at Ars Technica where it is pointed out that outside medical and military research, funding has been pretty bad. At the Scientists and Engineers For America Action Fund, it is pointed out that for 2007 data, after adjusting for inflation, federal funding for R&D decreased by 1.6%. It looks like some of this was offset by increased funding from industry and state and local governments (see the link for more details), but I would guess that probably didn’t help larger and more fundamental science projects such as in high energy physics. At the National Science Foundation (NSF) (which funded my research back in the day) site, we see NSF funding was down in 2007
Marbuger also makes an interesting comparison to some Asian countries.
The total spent on R&D — $368bn in 2007 — remains remarkably steady year on year as a fraction of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at about 2.7%. This is the highest figure of any large economy except Japan, where the proportion is 3.4%, and South Korea, where it is 3.2%. China, in contrast, ploughs back just 1.4% of GDP into research.
This is technically correct. If you look at The Christian Science Monitor though, you’ll get a bigger picture. Not only are Korea and Japan higher, but they are (as of 2006 anyway; I need to find some more recent data) increasing. The U.S. is pretty much flat lined. Yes, China is low, but appears to have a steady linear growth (though still a small slope).
Now I am currently not within the scientific community trying to obtain funding and so on, but from what little information I’ve had time to glean and from what I’ve heard, things are not pretty right now. Has obtaining funding really gotten so worse these days? I can’t really say from my own experience, but I would suspect yes. I’d be interested in hearing others’ experiences. Regardless, moving forward, Obama has quite a task ahead of him. We are in an economic crisis, with a monster deficit, and in the middle of two wars. But to remain competitive and to continue to be a leader in basic research, we’ve got to somehow bolster support. I don’t envy him. But he has shown initiative and willingness to work in good faith with the scientific community and I hope some good things will come out of it.