Thursday, February 17, 2011

The "Me!" parade, or is there a better way to think about funding realities?

So, proposed new budgets are suggesting a $1.6 billion, or 5% or so cut in NIH research funding.  What we've seen in regard to the NSF budget is somewhat different: it may increase modestly, but with the  funds clearly targeted to investment in science interactions,  infrastructure, and education. These seem reasonable and not parochial, but of course NSF budgets are generally much less than NIH grants, and less often cover faculty salaries the way NIH does.

We knew about the NIH proposal because as soon as the proposed budget cuts were announced, we've been besieged by the "Me!" parade of  'urgent'  messages from professional societies urging us (with nice assistance in the form of convenient links) to write our congressmen in outrage, to protest the very nerve of suggesting that research take a hit!

But why does this instant email lobbying go on?  Millions are homeless or even jobless, or have no health care, or have disorders that don't require exotic research to alleviate, and to keep the economy from total free-fall the feds had to go into debt that they now have to figure out how to get out of, and if cuts have to go across the board.  Given this, why can't we be realistic and even good citizens to boot, and realize that a 5% cut in funds is not a cataclysm for science, somewhat less serious than being homeless, and  something to which we should respond to constructively, and with good grace?

If everyone in our society  feels  it's an automatic given that we'll protest anything disadvantageous to our personal selves, we'll descend into more internecine strife than the current situation is going to cause anyway.  Science has grown fat (and complacent?) on grant largess over recent decades, but have we delivered to society in commensurate terms?  Or have we become self-satisfied and ever willing to ask for more, bigger, longer, grander funds for feathering our own nests, with universities and research institutes living on the overhead that we (as their sales force) bring in?  Are the new data and findings in NIH-funded projects--which are very interesting, to be sure--our private playground, or are they really what the public tax base should be used for?  Are measures of public health improving as a result--if they're improving at all?

Investigators will certainly be able to manage, if we must, on less, and we think this could even be good in several ways.  Rather than lobby for more funds, why not lobby for more grants, even if they're smaller, and of shorter duration than they've become?  That way new investigators, young investigators, and people who actually have clever new ideas can have a better chance!  Why not cap the amounts any given lab can have, or stop projects that have been continued too long, or have grown too large, or have reached diminishing returns--and divide the savings up among people who offer something new?  Why not do more centralizing and sharing of costly hi-tech resources, and be more stringent about funding hi-tech but low-thoughtfulness projects?

Maybe schools that have grown fat on overhead with inflated but unpaid (soft-money) faculty, driven to flood the system with relentless grant applications, will have to develop a new sense of socially responsible mission, even if this means shrinking in size, and paying more attention (heavens!) to teaching.  The reversal of a 30-year trend towards growth for its own sake would not be an entirely bad thing. With the current age distribution, phasing back could be done as people retire and simply aren't replaced.  We don't need as many graduate students in an environment that is not able to grow exponentially--even if students are the trophies we like to wave about to demonstrate our importance.

Maybe departments will have to think about importance rather than dollars, when they hire new faculty.  Maybe as we tighten our belts, it will push the blood back to our brains, and the constraint will force new, creative thinking, and a new day for science that is both innovative and socially responsible.


occamseraser said...

Reminds me of a delightful essay by Pat Shipman long ago (Amer. Sci.?) that sang the praises and value of "small science". Hard work done on shoe-string budgets by problem-oriented scientists more interested in the research question than in generating indirect costs for bloated, parasitic research foundations. Amen.

On the other hand, let's nick a few percent out of the defense budget and party like it's 1999.

Ken Weiss said...

One needn't even heavily axe the overall science budget to keep universities in business (more, but smaller grants) or address more important problems (immanent health issues rather than abstract scientifically complex ones, &c).

If universities phase back by attrition, and get used to more focused research, we won't be worse off. But rethinking will be needed, because a common modus operandi is explicitly to dream up huge long-term projects, for obvious reasons of money, continuity, and the ability to defer really critical thinking into the future, the way Congress always defers the hard parts of budget cuts.