Another Cost Of Insufficient Science Funding

In a story revolving around paleobiologist Hope Jahren’s need to acquire funding, Jahren makes a point you might have heard here once or twice:

When we talk in this presidential campaign about “falling behind” in the race to produce scientists, all Jahrens can do is laugh. “America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.”

Science has never been a flush business, but it’s getting parched. The next time you meet a science professor, she says, ask her if she ever worries about her lab data, worries about making a deadline, worries about an experiment that won’t work, worries that she’s trying to crack an uncrackable question. “Ask a science professor what she worries about,” Hope Jahren says, “It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: ‘Money.’”

I wanted to check the story’s grim funding numbers, so I went to NSF and looked at the award. The project description sums up the damage the lack of funding can do (boldface mine):

This proposal represents a significant revision of the proposal approved for funding, as necessitated by the >50% reduction in the level of funding, and the restriction of time to two years of total funding. The main alteration of the scientific goals within the original proposal is the exclusion of oxygen isotope analyses of recovered fossil material that were proposed in the original version. In the event that further funding becomes available, collected fossil may be analyzed for oxygen isotope composition, and our hypotheses about paleorelative humidity can be tested under separate support at a later date.

Since the Intellectual Merit of the proposal is to perform “a first test of this hypothesis as the determination of the seasonal precipitation regime within Miocene Arctic forests using stable isotope analyses of fossils from the Kolyma River Basin“, this seems like a pretty significant scaling back of activity. Nor do these cuts seem to have much to do with merit at all–this is simply a lack of funding, and an unnecessary one at that. Something to think about the next time you hear a deficit hawk. Just saying.

Either we need a lot more funding for science, including state funding, or we have to start culling the herd. Because, right now, one of the hidden costs of the lack of funding is there is specific science that is going missing.

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1 Response to Another Cost Of Insufficient Science Funding

  1. Chris G says:

    > The next time you meet a science professor…

    The next time you meet a scientist who is not a professor…

    Of the research scientists you know, how many are academics, how many work in government or FFRDC labs, and how many work in industry?

    Speaking as someone who started off with the goal of living the schweet, schweet life of a Professor and then soured on it, the opportunities for a scientific career outside of academia are pretty limited, at least in my field (roughly speaking – physical chemistry, physics, remote sensing, atmospheric sciences). My sense is that opportunities in industry and in government labs are not what they were a couple decades ago – when I got my Ph.D. – let alone what they were 40-50 years ago. I don’t do any science anymore. I transition to engineering before I ran out of work as a scientist but the writing was on the wall. There are opportunities for creative problem solving in my current position but the corporate culture is fundamentally hostile to basic research. “That’s just a science project.” is something I hear regularly and it’s uttered with contempt when I do. Corporate R&D is focused is on low risk projects with short term payoffs. You need projects that. What’s lacking is a healthy balance between projects with potential near-, medium-, and long-term payoffs. My sense is that the balance was better – and that there were better opportunities for a career as an industrial scientist – twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. (Anyone out there in their sixties or seventies to reality check that?)

    PS > Either we need a lot more funding for science, including state funding, or we have to start culling the herd.

    What states provide significant funding for scientific research?

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