Boiling Frogs, Sequestration, and Science Funding

I’m always reluctant to use biologically incorrect metaphors: black swans aren’t rare, and frogs do jump out of water once it reaches a certain temperature. But the effects of the sequestration seem to have finally overridden the ‘boiling frog effect’ when it comes to science and science funding. Here’s one table from a recent survey chronicling the decline of U.S. research (more than one answer was allowed, except for questions with an asteriskfor most questions–I cut off the asterisks…):


What’s interesting is that scientists appear to have reached a tipping point (yes, I just used a phrase popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, and, yes, he is still a horrible person). Essentially, since about 2002 funding has leveled off and the bolus of PhDs trained during the salad days of the Clinton administration has worked its way through the system. Add to that the phenomenon of ‘research inflation’ wherein research costs rise faster than the regular inflation rate, and sprinkle on top an unchanged top amount for modular NIH grants, and there has been a slow squeeze of science (though the ARRA took a little pressure off). There is less funding to do research, and less ability to hire scientific workers.

A boiling pot if you will.

Rather than viewing this as a problem requiring political mobilization, the gradual nature of the crisis has led to scientists to run that much faster, write even more grants, and view failures as personal failures, not systemic ones.

But sequestration blows the lid off the pot (I couldn’t resist…). It’s not a personal failing if a grant that would have been funded previously isn’t funded because sequestration jacked up the cutoff score. If someone loses his job due to budget cuts that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, that too isn’t failure. It can’t be blamed on the capriciousness of review panels. Someone simply didn’t want to spend the damn money. There are few better ways to anger people than to remove previously possessed agency. And even we scientists, as political hapless as we can be (especially too many of those with lifetime job protection*, and who are often defenders of the current system), might just want to give someone a little hell over this. Because the rent or the mortgage, well, that’s pretty damn personal (to me, anyway).

One can always hope.

*Who often gain the most by not changing the system in any meaningful way.

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