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Two realities: science and the federal budget

Last week I met with associate professor of political science W. D. Kay, hoping for a primer on the federal budget. I keep hearing terms like sequestration and appropriations and wanted to find out exactly how they will affect the future of science research.

Before we got into it, he pointed me to this petition, which surfaced a couple months ago. More than 34,000 Americans were hoping for a real-life Star Wars-style Death Star. Turns out that won’t be happening any time soon: Not only would it cost $850 quadrillion, writes Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch of the Office of Management and Budget, “the Administration does not support blowing up planets.” Well, that’s a relief.

In the official White House response, Shawcross explains that officials are “working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.” While I’m sure that’s true, Kay’s description of the budget cycle makes me wonder if their work is in vain. “The budget cycle has been cobbled together over many years,” he told me. What we’ve got sounds rather ineffective, especially when it comes to scientific research.

Here’s the problem, according to Kay: politicians and scientists speak two different languages and live in two different realities. The words “long term” mean very different things to the two tribes. Every 12 months, on Oct.1, a new budget with new spending structures should come into effect (more on the reality of that in a moment). But basic research has a much longer incubation time. The benefits don’t pay off soon enough for politicians—whose reality is a 12-month budget cycle and two- to four-year term cycles.

On top of the timeline problems, there’s also an issue of balancing priorities. The federal budget is really a collection of smaller budgets, each submitted by the various government agencies from the National Science Foundation to the National Endowment for the Arts. Between October 1st and January, proposals from the agencies flood congress where they’re sent to one of 13 appropriations committees, which have the unenviable job of reviewing these requests and making adjustments.

Some of these committees make sense, like the one dedicated solely to defense spending and the one just for agriculture-related agencies. But others are totally wonky: The NSF is lumped in with NASA, Housing and Urban Development, and Veteran’s Affairs. “This means strange bedfellows get created,” said Kay. Things like international space stations are balanced against homeless shelters.

At the same time, it creates waste because potentially mutual interests get overlooked. For example, when Kay was researching policy surrounding fusion energy science, he heard people say things like this: “If you give us a billion dollars a year for thirty years, we could do it,” he told me. “The cost of one B1 bomber would be enough to solve fusion energy,” he clarified. But that tradeoff would never happen because defense and energy spending are managed by two different subcommittees.

“No one planned it this way,” said Kay. “It’s an absolute mess.”

Okay, so fine, we’ve got a mess of a budget cycle, but at least we’ve got a budget, right? Not really. Earlier I mentioned that every Oct. 1 the government should have a new budget in hand for the ripe young fiscal year. But rarely does it meet that deadline. Right now we’re still operating on the FY12 budget.

“If the two parties can’t find any common ground, they just create something vague like this,” said Kay, referring to sequestration. On Jan. 1, automatic spending cuts were supposed to start wiping the budget clean of all sorts of things. Anything that wasn’t “sacrosanct,” like money for active-duty troops, was vulnerable. This was the fiscal cliff and it was on everyone’s mind for a while.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, Congress just pushed back the deadline to stave off disaster. Now the big day to worry about is March 1.

If Congress doesn’t agree on a federal budget before then, a host of national programs—including those of the NSF, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy, the big spenders when it comes to scientific research—will see an 8.4 percent decrease in their individual budgets. For researchers, that translates to a total loss of $57.5 billion through 2017.

However, Kay told me, “government has broken the hearts of scientists before.”

During World War II and the years that followed, scientific research enjoyed a period of unbridled dedication and funding. Between 1950 and 1960, total defense-related R&D spending jumped from $9.6 billion to $23 billion, while non-defense R&D went from $2.6 to $7.4 billion. So when projects began to be rejected in the ‘60s under President Truman, scientists across the nation were stunned.

The war effort had seen a flurry of new technologies, including the mass production of penicillin, radar detection, and even DDT. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Vannevar Bush of MIT to manage it all. And when the war ended in 1945, Bush advocated for a permanent infrastructure to continue supporting scientific research. He established what would eventually become the National Science Foundation, but not long after Truman took office and that period of luxury ended. Truman needed a balanced budget, not a new pesticide.

Bush argued that basic research was the foundation of a prosperous nation. Government’s role was to fund it, even if the payoff was decades down the line. If he’d had his way, scientists would have free reign over their funds and would have been answerable to know one—a model that had essentially been in place during the days of the Manhattan Project. He had to settle for what he got: A budget structure that fits squarely inside the annual cycle I described earlier.

While an $850 quadrillion Death Star obviously ludicrous, what else do we forego by cutting science spending? Bush may have said we’re putting the very foundation of the scientific process, and by extension national growth, on the line.

– by Angela Herring

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