Friday, April 15, 2011

What about all that math and science education we're supposed to be promoting?

Paul Krugman and Hendrik Hertzberg, among others, lauded the president’s budget speech on Tuesday April 11 and the way Obama conveyed dignified exasperation over the notorious Ryan plan. Paul Krugman was fairly sanguine about the direction it pointed in, though he did sound a note of caution that if Obama’s position became the “left pole” from which the Administration would move farther to the right to reach “bipartisan” compromise, it would be better to do nothing at all. 

Unfortunately, it looks like we’ve been had—again—and this time it goes way beyond the Administration ceding ground to the Austerity Brigade.  

In recent weeks we’ve been told:

1. We need to emphasize science and math education so we can “win the future” and “outcompete the world”. 

2. This is the time for austerity, which means cutting the budget for education and federal research support for math and science. 

For the record, I agree with Krugman: whoever came up with the phrase "win the future" should be sent to count yurts in Outer Mongolia

More to the point, the problem with this formula is that the NIH and NSF are the primary forces driving research, not to mention our much-vaunted science education. It is federal funding that supports all those wonderful scientists and mathematicians who are going to win the future, etc., etc.  

How much less funding are we talking about? Drawing from recent reports in Science, The Economist, and the House continuing resolution (CR), the upshot is this:

The House CR proposed cutting the NIH budget by $1.6 billion; the administration bargained this down to $260 million.  Since the average NIH grant is $250,000 per year, my back-of-the-envelope calculation is that this means ‘only’ 1040 grants will vanish instead of 6400. There are about 600 research universities in the US; there are roughly 30,000 NIH-funded PI's or "principal investigators", the most successful of whom have an average of 1.2-1.4 NIH grants at a time. By this rough estimate, cutting 6400 grants would have meant over 1 in 5 academic scientists would have lost most of their funding. 

The CR cut the NSF budget by $75 million; the administration bargained this down to $53M.  In FY 2010 there were over 40,000 NSF grants with a median annual award size of about $127,000. The original CR would have cut 590 grants; now only 427 will vanish. (Note that health-related research is generally much more costly than research in the hard sciences.)

The Centers for Disease control budget will be cut by $730 million (instead of $1.4 billion in the CR).

The Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science will be cut by $35 M (instead of $901M in the CR).

The CR also cut the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (the part of DOE that funds research on climate physics, bioenergy, and initiated the Human Genome Project) by 49%, effectively shutting it down the rest of the year. I can find no information on whether the Obama administration negotiated a less severe cut.

In sum:              
                 House CR cut       Newly negotiated cut           

 NIH            $1.6 B                         $260 M
 NSF            $75 M                           $53 M
 CDC           $1.4 B                         $730 M
 DOEOS     $901 M                          $35 M

Remarkably, these figures represent a miniscule percentage of the multi-trillion dollar budget deficit, and even a relatively small portion of the budgets of these federal offices. What we must realize, however, is that research lab budgets are very streamlined, and every penny must be accounted for on a yearly basis. Young investigators receive support from their university departments, but by their mid-career stage, scientists are expected to cover the costs of their research programs with their own grant dollars. The average biomedical science graduate student is paid $22-25,000 roughly $20-30K (2009-2010), and the grant also covers their health insurance and other overhead, bringing the total cost for a student to about $35-45K. (Note that medical and graduate schools waive tuition for PhD students, which is another sizeable chunk of change that universities swallow for the good of the community.) A post-doc might cost $35-45 40-60K, not including overhead. Faculty salaries vary widely by region, but range from $80K at the low end for young assistant professors to over twice or thrice that amount for the most successful. So one grant might cover the salary of the faculty member, a postdoctoral fellow or a student, some necessary equipment, materials (which easily run thousands of dollars per month), modest travel costs to a conference, and publication costs (the balance depends on the individual lab and other sources of support, and yes, scientists have to pay journals for color figures in their papers and other sundry publication costs). If successful NIH-funded scientists average 1.2-1.4 grants annually (each grant lasts five years, with the possibility for competitive renewal), then to lose 1040 grants means that a thousand scientists, and their postdocs and students, will be out of a job unless they can quickly find another source of support through philanthropy (which is tough to get and doesn’t provide overhead for the university) or industry (which comes with many strings attached, to the benefit of the company rather than the university lab). 

It's also crucial to realize that federally funded research drives the engines of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, whose main function is to take discoveries made in university and medical school research labs and scale them up into marketable drugs and devices. These industries do not, by and large, conduct fundamental research. (How could they? They exist to turn profits, like all businesses.)

In some ways, scientific labs are like small businesses, which can flourish only when there is robust infrastructural support. Consider our most successful corporations.  They spring up in areas where there's running water, reliable electricity, good roads for transportation, not to mention easy access to educated people. It would be hard to imagine Microsoft, Apple, GE, or Bristol-Myers Squibb achieving greatness from humble beginnings in, say, Afghanistan or Sierra Leone—which is why corporations should be paying taxes instead of getting billions of dollars in rebates.

Every commentator who has lamented these draconian and senseless cuts has thrown up their metaphoric hands and concluded that Republicans must simply hate science.  A few probably do hate the science that provides a rationale for curbing corporate excess—it’s no surprise they wanted to shut down the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, which studies climate physics and bioenergy, among other things—but I don’t think that this is the real motivation.

First, they’re a particularly technophilic bunch when it comes to their own health. 

Second, there is no inherent contradiction between conservatism and science. In fact, among those holding doctorates, scientists and physicians are more likely to be Republican than historians, philosophers, and others in the humanities. In the 112th Congress, for example, there are 20 doctors, only two of whom are Democrats. (Republicans do disdain the humanities, but that's because they see value only in economic terms. Cf. "Ceding the Premise.")

Third, let’s consider what happens to mathematicians and scientists who cannot fund their academic research. Biomedical researchers go to Big Pharma. But what part of the business world most warmly embraces mathematicians and physicists, i.e., those at the top of our scientific hierarchy? 

Why, the financial sector, of course. 

Mathematicians and PhDs of various stripes were the ones who created the algorithms that allow hedge fund managers to shave off a fraction of a penny for each Wall Street transaction and thereby amass untold fortunes while siphoning wealth from the entire economy without anyone noticing.  It's a nifty trick: you can’t teach it in school, you need the combination of unbridled greed and utter contempt for the hoi polloi that comes with constant exposure to the amoral world of economics/finance, in which rationality itself is defined as acting in one's own best economic interest, without any impulse to take into account other systems of value.

Now we know who loses when “we” win the future: us.

Not incidentally, we also know why the Obama administrations seems unable to shake up DC business as usual: it’s all about business in the first place.

If we allow politicians to slash federal education and research programs, our best and brightest (as they define them—scientists and mathematicians) will have no choice but to work for corporate titans to make them even more ridiculously wealthy than they already are, to transform them from the top 1% to the top 0.01%.

This is not an entirely new predicament. The idea that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, has been around since the Romans. (And look what happened to them.) As with so many other contemporary trends, however, the pace of destructive changes is accelerating because of feedback mechanisms within the system. 

Thankfully, there is an alternative.

What an honest, workable budget looks like—and the challenge to getting there

Eighty members of the House Progressive Caucus put together The People’s Budget, which would eliminate the deficit and create a surplus by 2021 in an efficient and fair way, largely by curbing military spending, raising tax rates on giant corporations, and wrestling healthcare costs under control by offering a public option—three mechanisms that a majority of the population have favored.

Check out the People’s Budget and if you like what you read, sign on here.  There is hope for genuine change that allows all of us to flourish, but it will take a little effort to educate ourselves.

This will be an uphill battle, however. To make clear just how difficult it is to wrest money from corporate interests, take the recent prank by US Uncut, a burgeoning movement to pressure corporate tax cheats like GE to pay their fair share.  Earlier this week they posted a fake news release praising GE for returning their legal, if ethically reprehensible, tax refund of $3.2 billion.  Several media outlets ran the story as if it were true, and the result was that GE stocks dropped .6% (far more than the value of the supposed return) until it became clear the press had been duped, at which point the stocks recovered.

As US Uncut rightfully concludes, GE can't be expected to do the right thing voluntarily because its stock would plunge—that's why we have to work to change the laws.  We can argue that a company's priority should not be to keep its shareholders happy, but that's where we are these days.

Further reading:

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize-winning economist, in the current issue of Vanity Fair. 

The Economist's Democracy in America blog has an excellent post for those curious about the effects of cuts to the federal research budgets (see particularly the links).


  1. This is very sad! Their decisions lacks foresight and are driven solely by their desire to be elected (by an equally blind mob). Thank you for this timely post!

  2. here's an interesting project at the University of Florida...

  3. Thank you for the link -- I think it's a terrific idea. The one downside is that one is severely limited in the answers one can give (one votes for one of three possible answers in a mini multiple choice, then is given a limited --very limited, for me! :) -- number of characters with which to justify that choice). Perhaps this reveals something fundamentally problematic with any voting system.....