Science: The Final (Budget) Frontier

There are many people who think that little or no “science” will get done – at least “basic” science that has no evident, immediate, practical applications – unless the federal government pays for it. That is a dubious proposition, but it’s not what really alarms me right now. What really troubles me is that scientists, apparently, can conceive of no end to research worthy of your hard-earned dollars, and see things in Washington looking a lot friendlier to their exploring the final, spending frontier. This quote from an article in Inside Higher Ed today says it all:

Pressed by [Rep. Alan] Mollohan and others for how much money the government ought to be spending on science research and education,  [National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J.] Cicerone was clearly reluctant to throw out figures; danger loomed that he would look either greedy or unambitious in appearing to speak for the science establishment.

But he made clear that he would welcome a way of ensuring growth for federal spending on science, perhaps, he said, through a mechanism that tied spending to “the number of highly competitive proposals” agencies receive, to ensure that there is enough money to cover all research proposals that scientific peer review processes grade above a certain level.

When Mollohan asked what was the appropriate “end point” for growth in federal science funds, Cicerone said that “we are so far away from that level that it’s hard to say.”

So science can tell us a lot, but not how far we are from adequate science funding. I, however, can put it in a little perspective: In 2006 the federal government spent more than $31 billion on research at ”educational institutions.” If the funding end point is, say, Saturn, then to at least some scientists it seems we haven’t even gotten to the moon.

Get ready for scientists to blast off with your wallets anytime now.