Let's stop rearranging the deck chairs

Jun 04 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I've come to a bit of a realization recently.

I have spent a lot of time over the years thinking about and talking about ways to fix the current funding mess at NSF. I think it's a useful exercise and nearly inevitable in times when everyone is looking for solutions. I discussed it with people online, offline, inline and in line at the grocery store. At times I thought I had a really good idea or two, worth batting around.

But almost every time I've thought up something I thought might be helpful, I would mention it to a Program Officer and in about 10 seconds they would point out a major flaw I either wasn't aware of or hadn't considered. And the more and more discussions I see on this topic the more I realize that everyone has a significantly blind spot when it comes to The Solution. Unsurprisingly, people's solutions always benefit the type of science they do while undercutting something else, whether they realize it or not.

People argue about grant size and number, collaborations, junior versus senior, but all we're doing is debating the pattern we want the deck chairs to be in when the ship finally sinks.

"They should be spread evenly across the deck!"

"No, there should be varying clumps!"

"Um, folks, I don't want to alarm you but my shoes are wet."

At this point I am comfortable saying that I think NSF (specifically Bio, but probably the rest as well) is doing the best they possibly can to fund science in this country, given the budget they have. The reality is that there just isn't the money available to fund all the good ideas and that has placed a squeeze on everything. It exacerbates the influx of proposals and turns up the static in the peer review process, making reviewer jobs harder. It enhances the smallest flaws in every proposal because the margin is so thin. Missteps that would have been overlooked in a better climate now knock proposals out of the running.

And it's hard.

But it's harder on the people trying to keep the system running with one hand tied behind their back.

Without additional money into the pipe, there's no real solution that isn't going to gouge some part of the NSF population badly. If there were a simple or even mildly painful solution, I honestly think it would have been tried (See: preproposals). But for now, the only group to blame is congress for keeping science funding stagnant for years.

Now, that's not to say that our current arrangement is sustainable. It's not. We've done the experiment. The NIH doubling didn't help (edit: because it was a one time pulse that has not been sustained). The ARA influx to NSF didn't do much of anything (edit: again, because of the transience of those moneys). The way we are currently conducting business is not sustainable anymore, no matter what money gets put into the system.

Tomorrow I'll suggest some ways to move forward.

7 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Claiming the NIH doubling "didn't help" is bullshit and revisionist. It caused some additional problems perhaps, but this truthy crap plays right into the wrong (read, Republican) hands.

  • qaz says:

    The proportion of GDP being put into science now is 2/3rds of what it was in 1976, and less than 1/3 of what it was in 1965. Doubling and *maintaining* the doubled budget would make a very big difference. You want science to be great again, let's triple the NIH budget and keep it that way.

    When the powers-that-be (I think it was the CBO) was looking at the effect of the NIH doubling, they estimated dropping it to 9% growth annually, 6% growth annually, and 3% growth annually, which they said would cause severe hardship. Instead, we saw negative growth after the doubling - it actually shrunk!

    The patient is bleeding out on the table. Just because a band-aid won't help doesn't mean a pressure bandage or serious first aid won't.

  • Sorry, that was a bit lazy. I would modify that to "the initital doubling, followed by the subsequent failure to continue a sustainable increase in funding only compounded problems."

  • Drugmonkey says:

    The problem with the shorthand is that it recommends no additional $$$z. Qaz points out the flaw in that thinking.

  • Totally agree. We can't grow science with 1980s level funding, for sure. I didn't follow through with that thought.

  • dr24hours says:

    As science grows, it is reasonable to grow investment in science. But until the massive skimming of research funds for unrelated administrative function is quelled, it's hard to support throwing good money after bad.

  • […] I talked about the futility of making nano-scale adjustments to the process of review and funding at NSF. The take home is basically no system is perfect, but […]

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