Good times, bad times

For academic scientists, there’s good news on the horizon. A spending deal passed by congress last month not only averts another government shutdown and returns federal spending to pre-sequestration levels, it also includes a modest boost to the sciences.

Science reports:

On 10 December, legislators had struck a spending deal that eased the pain of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. It called for $1.012 trillion in 2014 discretionary spending, some $44 billion more than would have been available under a 2011 agreement that called for reducing the federal deficit by a trillion dollars over the next decade. But it took until 13 January for lawmakers to decide how to divvy up the money.

For agencies that provide major support for the physical sciences, the new budget represents a healthy boost over 2013 spending levels, which were depressed by the sequester’s 5% bite. The National Science Foundation (NSF) will receive $7.17 billion, an increase of 4.2%, for example, and NASA’s science programs will get $5.15 billion, a 7.7% jump. The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science enjoys a 9.7% increase, to $5.07 billion, and DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy gets an 11.2% boost to $280 million. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology will see its budget grow 10.4%, to $850 million.

While that’s excellent news for physical scientists, biological scientists have less cause for jubilation:

COMPETES did not cover the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose budget had doubled between 1998 and 2004, to $27.2 billion. Since then, it has received much smaller boosts—with the huge exception of the 2009 stimulus, a one-time boost of $10.4 billion. Congress maintained that pattern of smaller increases this year: NIH’s 2014 budget will rise by 3.5%, to $29.9 billion.

“It’s hard not to be pleased with a billion-dollar increase,” says David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges. But some biomedical lobbyists remain disappointed. It “won’t adequately reverse the damage done by last year’s budget sequester and ensure the nation’s biomedical research enterprise makes continued progress,” says Carrie Wolinetz of United for Medical Research, a coalition of academic and industry groups.

The NIH’s R01 grant is the bread-and-butter of the biological sciences. These grants, sizable when compared to NSF grants, keep labs running across the country. They buy equipment, cover overhead costs, and, in many cases, pay salaries. According to FASEB, the percentage of Ro1’s awarded has dropped 42% since 2003.

For new researchers, the inability to procure funding presents myriad consequences. As universities will favor hirees who have already been awarded R01’s, just getting a job can be difficult. And even if you do manage to land a gig at a good university, you won’t be getting tenure without an R01. Then, you get to start looking for a job all over again.

As opportunities in academics dwindle, fewer and fewer people will find the investment of graduate school and postdoctoral research worth the payoff. There will be a brain drain, and, yet again, the United States will fall further and further behind her contemporaries.

While no increase in funding will go unappreciated, this is akin to slapping a band aid on an arterial bleed. The totality of scientific funding falls somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the annual budget; there’s no reason we should risk the academic future of this country for what amounts to negligible savings. If our leaders had any sense of civic responsibility, they’d stop treating academics like pesky orphans looking for handouts and tackle the $572 billion elephant in the room.


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