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The Coming Dark Age For Science In America
August 14, 2013 9:35 AM   Subscribe

The Coming Dark Age For Science In America (single link HuffPo)
posted by T.D. Strange (84 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
The sequester seems destined to go down as one of the worst legislative mistakes ever perpetrated by Congress. I just don't understand how anyone supports it.
posted by feloniousmonk at 9:45 AM on August 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


All of this is by design. Republicans don't believe government should be doing this sort of thing and this is what "Starve the Beast" looks like. Learning to live with a post-functional government is going to a real challenge. I wish things were different.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:51 AM on August 14, 2013 [35 favorites]


A friend of mine is a molecular biologist who is normally developing new treatments for MRSA. Now she is working four days a week and spends most of her time scrambling to keep her research projects afloat.

But hey: low taxes! Ownership society! Capitalism will fix MRSA! The future is bright as long as you're rich!
posted by Avenger at 9:52 AM on August 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


Don't worry, the most profitable science will still be done. New GMO crops and cell phone screen technologies and such. Oh, and a solar powered bullet train across California. Tesla owners get 50% off tickets!
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:53 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just don't understand how anyone supports it.

Because it's easier than actually making choices, you know governing:

For years (centuries?), “I’m not a politician” has been a sort of empty phrase used by many politicians in this country to indicate their sincerity. But, in the case of many Tea Party folks, it’s true, and I mean that in a way that’s a little different than the way it’s normally used.

I saw some charts of the outside spending in many 2010 elections, and it was shocking how high the percentage of outside money was in some GOP-won districts. Like 95% high. This - probably combined with the general collapse of state GOP parties along the same time - meant the folks who won in these districts did not have to do the traditional political tasks of piecing together a coalition of donors and supporters that are necessary for just about any major office.

This means that some of them just aren’t politicians, in the technical, literal sense of knowing anything about politics. Which, contrary to popular belief, is a real problem when these guys have to engage in politics in the legislative sense since “politics” is the process through which you get things done at that level. It’s like making doctors out of a bunch of folks who never went through med school. A critical mass of Republicans just don’t know anything about coalitions or stitching together majorities to move the ball forward. They don’t have the slightest inkling of what the process of politics looks like and how to get things done within it.

posted by leotrotsky at 9:53 AM on August 14, 2013 [53 favorites]


I'm on the job market for academic math positions this coming year, and am wondering whetehr to even bother with applying in the US. The job market there has been progressively more dismal for years, and the US on the whole seems so dysfunctional (wanna be in debt for ten years? go to the ER for an ear infection!) and unable to fix its problems that I'm really not too tempted by the idea of going back. Yeah, maybe if there were a nice job waiting for me, but academia seems to be collapsing slowly.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:54 AM on August 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


No one supports the sequester; it's just no one can come up with a budget deal to replace it. And specifically no one has dissuaded the Tea Party caucus from their stance that making any kind of deal, even one highly favorable to their policy preferences, is anathema.

On preview: What leotrotsky said.
posted by Cash4Lead at 9:55 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


As long as we've got the market cornered on "Low T" supplements and boner pills, the GOP will be happy.
posted by stenseng at 9:56 AM on August 14, 2013


The invisible hand of the market has all the science it needs.
posted by GuyZero at 9:56 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I support science, I support research. It makes the economy go, and the government should be in the business of supporting it.

That said, I'd like some help breaking down this quote:
All told, NIH funding for just the School of Medicine totaled $95.1 million between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013.
Now, is that grants that were awarded in the time frame, or the pro-rate payout of grants over that time frame ? (ie a 5 year, $5 mill grant would contribute $1mill to the total)

Because almost $100 mill, for one med school, in one year .. That's, well, a lot of money. Where does it go ? Who's making bank off that ? We know it isn't phd students or post-docs. (and that's just NIH money, not DOD or other grants..)
posted by k5.user at 10:00 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


- I just don't understand how anyone supports it.

- Because it's easier than actually making choices, you know governing


That's governing in the sense of deal-making, which is necessary to get anything done. When everyone is entrenched in what they think is right, necessary, and/or good, and those beliefs are contrary to the thoughts and actions of others with whom you should be coming to some consensus, nothing happens.

Because no one could agree on a better plan, the "last resort" hatchet that was agreed upon in 2011 was actually used. Everyone suffers, everyone hates it, but not enough people in power can agree on anything to replace it.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:03 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
posted by blue_beetle at 10:05 AM on August 14, 2013 [61 favorites]


Well, publicly funded academic scientific research will enter a dark age. I expect the corporate sciences to monetize quite a few awesome things in the meantime.
posted by Halogenhat at 10:07 AM on August 14, 2013


You think the sequester is bad? At the moment, the GOP is arguing about whether or not to shut down the government (pretty bad, mainly for poor Americans) or to default on our debt (extraordinarily bad for the entire world except for the super-rich) unless Obamacare is defunded.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:08 AM on August 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I definitely support ending the sequestration assuming we also cut the discretionary spending that most needs cutting, like law enforcement and military.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:12 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Halogenhat: "Well, publicly funded academic scientific research will enter a dark age. I expect the corporate sciences to monetize quite a few awesome things in the meantime."

If corporations were more interested in basic research than in monetizing things I would find that reassuring.
posted by brundlefly at 10:13 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


They are going to discover the hard way what a crock of shit American exceptionalism really is. You're only exceptional if you continue to make exceptional things happen. Stop working at it and you can turn into the ruins of a collapsed empire overnight. People stop investing in a country when they lose confidence in its ability to manage its own affairs. What do these imbeciles think is going to happen when their little tantrum brings the country to a standstill? What hill do they think is so high that the flood won't get their feet wet?

I've got an escape strategy. I hope others are working on theirs.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:13 AM on August 14, 2013 [14 favorites]


The Huffington Post mourns science? A little late for them to feel remorse.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:14 AM on August 14, 2013 [13 favorites]


I thought the trend was that industries (or at least pharma) were shutting down their labs?

Astellas follows other pharma giants that have shrunk their R&D operations in recent years—a category that includes AstraZeneca, Roche, Pfizer, and Takeda—as companies scramble to justify multi-billion-dollar investments in research and development of new drugs, or in some cases, brace for multi-million-dollar revenue losses as blockbusters lose patent protection.
posted by armacy at 10:16 AM on August 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, you'd expect the Huffington Post to think that a minuscule amount of science would be more effective.
posted by brundlefly at 10:17 AM on August 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Halogenhat: Well, publicly funded academic scientific research will enter a dark age. I expect the corporate sciences to monetize quite a few awesome things in the meantime.

I wish I was quite as sanguine as you.

Especially for things that are high risk / high payoff (like drug discovery, or many kinds of fundamental research) the corporate sector has been frankly mooching off of public investment, bringing discoveries to the commercial stage (thank you Bob Dole and Evan Bayh, who repaid their lobbyists well I guess).

Right now we're eating our seed corn. And there isn't going to be more of that in the years to come.

(I say this from bitter personal experience. If the NSF takes a 10% budget hit and has 75% of its budget devoted to fixed costs, that's a 40% cut to the discretionary grants programs. I think back on the program officers telling us that "the President does not anticipate a sequestration of funds to take effect" - gee, thanks, Obama. No one could have anticipated ...)
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:19 AM on August 14, 2013


People are tired of being exceptional. 20 years of school, massive debts, 60 hour weeks. Fuck it, let's just kick back and eat baguettes and shit. I'm serious about this, let's just watch magnum PI on Netflix and smoke weed.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:20 AM on August 14, 2013 [35 favorites]


This means that some of them just aren’t politicians, in the technical, literal sense of knowing anything about politics. Which, contrary to popular belief, is a real problem when these guys have to engage in politics in the legislative sense since “politics” is the process through which you get things done at that level. It’s like making doctors out of a bunch of folks who never went through med school. A critical mass of Republicans just don’t know anything about coalitions or stitching together majorities to move the ball forward. They don’t have the slightest inkling of what the process of politics looks like and how to get things done within it.

This is exactly why we're suddenly getting shit over previously uncontroversial things like the Debt Ceiling. It's something that's never been a problem, but suddenly we have a bunch of people who are new to DC and have no fucking idea how the government works, but they know they hate it. So they start doing things that seem like a good idea to somebody with less understanding of the government than the average high school freshman because those things flatter their ignorant comprehension, and everything goes to hell.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:23 AM on August 14, 2013 [14 favorites]


As long as we've got the market cornered on "Low T" supplements and boner pills, the GOP will be happy.

They will not. Not for long, anyway, as their major supporters are finally forced to admit how much of the basis for their outsized profit comes from exploiting publicly-funded endeavors.

I imagine there's got to be some sort of Republican equivalent of Bill Hicks' "dark smoky room" whenever they're elected to office - all the biotech CEOs, military contractors, and major industrialists pull the guy aside and say "hey buddy - let's face it, every major innovation of the last 50 years at least has come from NASA, the DoD, or the NIH. We just slap a pretty cover on it and double the price."

They will have to get the gravy train running again soon - their big donors simply can't live long without it.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:24 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just have to flag this bit from the article:

Dutta confides that if he wants to keep his postdoctoral fellow he may have to euthanize the mice to save money.
"Isn't that terrible?" he asks. "Basically the mice are always the first thing you let go."
"I guess you can't euthanize the postdoctoral fellow," I respond, hoping to lighten the mood.
A few days later, Dutta tells me that because of the budget cuts, he had informed the post-doctoral fellow that he would be losing his spot this December.


(Well at least he saved the mice, right? Or did he euthanize the mice *and* the postdoc?)
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:26 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


K5: It's not much money.

A breakdown of NIH funding for U of VA

You'll notice that there's about $10 million of the $89 million overall that goes towards research centers and training, and $76 million that goes towards actual research project grants (RPGs).

That $76 million for RPGs supports 196 awards, which breaks down to an average of $387,000 per grant award per year. After you take out overhead/indirect costs (which can reach 50%, or 1/3rd of the listed award at most universities), this doesn't leave much on the table. The breakdown per grant award at UVA gives you a sense for the sums that primary investigators are working with here. And there are a lot of research projects going on. And continuity is key.

Average of $387,000 ($258,000 after indirect costs are taken out) means a few grad students, techs, post-docs, or fellows can be supported. Then you have lab supplies, which can easily total $25k-$100k per year. Plus new equipment and maintenance on existing equipment. And let's not forget the horrific costs associated with either animal studies or any clinical work.

Bottom line: It's a lot less money than you think.

The worst part of this scarce funding is that primary investigators have to spend a lot of more of their time to get grants to keep their work going. If only 5-10% of your proposals get funded, then you have to write 20-30 proposals a year just to keep a few grants coming in. That's an insane amount of work.
posted by Mercaptan at 10:26 AM on August 14, 2013 [13 favorites]


When everyone is entrenched in what they think is right, necessary, and/or good, and those beliefs are contrary to the thoughts and actions of others with whom you should be coming to some consensus, nothing happens.

That may be true in general, but in the case of the sequester, we should be more precise. The Obama/Democratic position has always been that they're willing to accept cuts to domestic programs, even ones as cherished as Social Security, if the GOP gives ground on their opposition to tax increases on the rich. This has not happened. Even in the case of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for top earners at the beginning of this year, there were no other budgetary conditions attached to it other than the delay of the sequester for a few months, which (obviously) made no difference. The GOP continues to pursue a maximalist line on taxes, even to absurd and self-destructive ends, as when the House couldn't pass its own appropriations bills.

The key to governing, as mentioned above, is making choices: You're never going to get 100% of what you want, but if you're savvy and work hard, you can get a good chunk of it. The Tea Party caucus, however, seems to think that if it does not get 100% of what it wants, it would rather see the government kneecapped, as documented in the FPP, or even preside over the first sovereign default in American history, than get some or even most of what it wants. I don't know what you call that, but it's not governing.
posted by Cash4Lead at 10:28 AM on August 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


I was listening to NPR on my way to work this morning and they were talking about how JPL is having to face the consequences of a $200 million cut to planetary science programs by NASA for the next fiscal year.

http://www.scpr.org/blogs/politics/2013/04/24/13436/nasa-proposes-200m-cuts-to-planetary-science-jpl-c/

For some reason that bit of news left me extra depressed. On the very short list of things that are still cool and exciting about the US NASA's planetary science programs are near the top for me.

As an aside: you'd think corporate America would be all over keeping government funded science alive. After all having government funded research means that R&D costs are being socialized while profits can still be raked in by private parties as new technologies are developed and refined and ultimately productized.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:28 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read that as "The Comics Dark Age for Science In America."

I am disappoint.

On a more serious note, I think the so-called "Dark Age" started a while ago. The sequestration cuts to federal science spending are a relative drop in the bucket compared to the drop-off of military R&D spending that started in the late 1970s and was finished by the mid-1980s. You want to know why college tuition has gone up so drastically in the last thirty years? Because the Pentagon stopped spending that money, and though non-defense research spending has increased by at least an order of magnitude during that time, it's still a drop in the bucket compared to what the universities lost.

In the mid-1970s, the Pentagon was spending something like $50 billion annually on science and R&D at universities across the country. Adjusted for inflation, that's between $250-300 billion 2012 dollars. This was mostly in physics, materials science, and engineering, and a huge chunk of it went to universities. Almost none of this was in biology, and relatively little in chemistry. That sort of thing only picked up when the NIH and NSF budgets started to pick up in the 1990s.

But NIH/NSF spending hasn't expanded nearly rapidly enough to replace the massive cutback in Pentagon spending. Clinton took the NIH from $10 billion to $15 billion by 1999, and Bush II took it from there to about $28 billion by 2004. It hit $31 billion in 2010 and has fallen slightly since then. This year's NSF budget $7-ish billion.

All of this money that went to science and engineering departments freed up university funds from other sources (i.e., tuition and donors) to build out other programs. When the money disappeared, the universities were left with a budget structure that depended upon that allocation of funds, propped up by millions* in defense spending. Taking that away left gaping holes in the budget which universities have not been able to fill, despite jacking tuition through the roof and basically freezing the number of tenure-track positions.

You want data and numbers? Check out The Effortless Economy of Science and especially Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science by Dr. Phil Mirowski.**

So yeah, okay, the sequester is a problem. I don't think anyone disputes that. But when we're focusing solely on the issue of science in America, the sequestration is really only the final insult to an injury that began thirty years ago.

An important implication, one which Mirowski is cognizant of but which is tangential to his project: cutting defense spending is not necessarily congruent with liberal/progressive goals. The Pentagon has been one of the most significant, efficient, and lasting forms of government investment in science and education as well as the single largest government economic stimulus project in history. True, the Pentagon spends like $650 billion a year, which makes it a tempting target for budget cuts. But where do you think that money actually gets spent? Well according to the numbers, $150 billion of it goes directly to US families in the form of salaries and other personnel expenses, $140 billion to procurement, and $80 billion on R&D. Personnel spending enables some 2.1 million Pentagon employees (civilian and military) and their families to maintain a secure middle-class lifestyle with awesome benefits. Procurement spending functionally enables the heaven-only-knows how many employees of defense contractors to do the same. The $80 billion the Pentagon still spends on R&D dwarfs all of the other federal spending on science combined, even though it's about a third of what it once was.

Another issue: the kinds of scientists and engineers that build ships, planes, and weapons systems don't necessarily have other jobs waiting for them. We're already employing as many civilian aerospace engineers as we need, and there's no private market for bombers, tanks, etc. So one of the reasons to spend this money, even during peace time, is that the government is betting that someday it's going to want to be able to buy those things, and if it doesn't prop up those industries, they won't exist. This was actually a problem in WWII. Tons of military hardware had to be basically invented from scratch, as there wasn't much of an arms industry to speak of. Ford, GM, etc. retooled civilian car factories to churn out tanks, which not only ate into the civilian economy, but required significant spending on that part of the project and resulted in really significant delays in the development, production, and deployment of the quality of arms we needed to win the war. Standards like the P-51 Mustang and M4 Sherman weren't produced in the kinds of quantities we needed until 1943. Our history of spending has enabled us to establish a commanding lead in terms of military tech, but even if we wanted to just stay put for the next fifty years, we'd still have to keep the people who support that industry employed for that time. Given the choice between simply keeping people on the payroll doing nothing at all and having them develop and produce new systems, the latter seems preferable.

Might there be better ways of spending this money if we were concerned solely about the country's economic welfare, not to mention the economic, political, and moral issues involved in projecting military power overseas? Absolutely. I'd like to see that funding ultimately diverted to things like education and transportation. But like it or not, the Pentagon is a critical part of the middle-class US economy, you can't just make it go away without painful economic consequences. More to the point, the people who are arguing most strenuously for government stimulus should be arguing against any such cuts, as that's basically what the Pentagon is: the easiest way for the government to spend money on things.*** At best, we should perhaps think about slowly transitioning that spending to other forms, but cutting it off too rapidly would just result in a bunch of unemployed soldiers, civilians, and contractors.

*Sometimes hundreds of billions. IIRC, Penn State alone got something like $650 million a year from the Navy at one point. They still get a bunch, but I think it's fallen off quite a bit.

**Full disclosure: I took some graduate economics classes from him in law school, including Economics of Science. We read from a draft version of Science-Mart. It was a real eye-opener.

***There's a difference, economically speaking, between government spending and transfer payments. The former add to the GDP, as they represent government purchases of stuff, even if that stuff is things like soldiers, bombers, and tanks. The latter does not add to the economy as such, as it just shifts money around. With Defense spending, the government is buying things. With transfer payments, the government is hoping that other people will buy things. We can have a conversation about which is optimal, but the fact that the two are different isn't really in dispute.
posted by valkyryn at 10:29 AM on August 14, 2013 [33 favorites]


As a researcher who has been looking for employment for 7+ months, all I can say is tell me something I don't know. It is appalling and I know people who have been looking for years.

Armacy:
For more than a decade Pharma has been gutting research programs. There are lots of articles outlining the staggering numbers. The rationale is that marketing is more profitable. Somehow long term viability is never an issue as it not a big stretch to re-brand a powerhouse drug, say extend the effective time with an enteric capsule and get a renewed patent.

I am hoping to land something short term far under my level to give me enough resources to train in another field. From my vantage, 30+ years of research, top pubs, patents, I see no work and an even bleaker future. Time to give up the naive dream of making a discovery that will help mankind and work on the reality of feeding my family.

also on preview, valkryn has a good view of the history
posted by oshburghor at 10:31 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is one major problem with this article : What jobs do universities actually cut?

Yes, they'll deny tenure more often and offer fewer tenure-track lines, but that's vanishingly few people already. Almost all the research jobs supported by grants are postdocs and grad students. Postdocs are extremely exploitive positions precisely because almost no opportunity for career advancement exists.

Yes, the sequester hurts American science in the sense that foreign universities publish more interesting work. Yet, the reduction in postdoctoral positions actually helps young academic researchers by sending them to jobs they could actually keep 5-10 years younger.

Anyone dead set on an academic job should be moving to Asia, quite a number I know did so already.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:32 AM on August 14, 2013


Mercaptan: The worst part of this scarce funding is that primary investigators have to spend a lot of more of their time to get grants to keep their work going. If only 5-10% of your proposals get funded, then you have to write 20-30 proposals a year just to keep a few grants coming in.

And don't forget the unpaid volunteer peer reviewers. Few people understand how badly it sucks to review a great proposal, really like it, figure out that it ranks in the top 10%, and then realize with a sinking feeling that a 5% success rate means it won't get funded.

We've heard semi-serious proposals that we should just shred half the proposals, unread, so that the panel can spend more time discussing the rest of them and give them a reasonable shot at success. Because every member on that review panel has or will have proposals in front of other review panels with the same problems...
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:34 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The invisible hand of the market has all the science it needs.

Well said. The smug I-know-as-much-as-I-need-to-justify-what-I-was-going-to-do-anyway mindset of the conservative zealot.
posted by lon_star at 10:34 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


RedOrGreen: Yeah the amount of PI time being wasted on the entire funding cycle is horrific. I mean, we're talking about truly valuable people who are being forced to grind, WoW-style, just to stay on the grant treadmill.
posted by Mercaptan at 10:37 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


When everyone is entrenched in what they think is right, necessary, and/or good, and those beliefs are contrary to the thoughts and actions of others with whom you should be coming to some consensus, nothing happens.

It's more specific than that. There's a certain proportion of congress (and to a lesser extent, the senate) that will accept absolute nothing less than total victory for their personal hobby horse. Despite being in a minority, they see any compromise as failure. The problem is, the moderate republicans who would be prepared to haggle are held hostage by such zealots - any sign of compromise means they're going to get challenged from the hard core right.

The tea party are doing exactly what they said they would. Go to Washington and shut it all down, unless it's funding for what they want - the military and the security apparatus. They're not there for anyone but their wealthy backers who got them elected.

I can only see three end games at this point.

1) The collapse becomes so hard and so bad that enough tea party supporters stop believing the media lies about how it's all the other guy's fault, and even the vast spiggot of money funding propaganda is no longer enough to buy the election.

2) demographics swings far enough that even gerrymandering and the aforementioned useful idiots aren't enough to hold a blocking majority together.

3) Total economic collapse akin to the fall of the soviet union, ultimately ending with a radical shift in the political system. In such a circumstance, _I_wouldn't bet against the security state and wealthy oligarchs ending up in defacto control.

In any event, I don't see it being pretty for anyone who's not already wealthy, nor will the fallout be contained to just the USA.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:37 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, 5-10% funding rates represent an almost criminal waste of effort. Grant writing has always been the thing I've spent the most time on, and it's only getting worse. And most of that effort feels wasted. This is a problem....
posted by mr_roboto at 10:37 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here Are All the Laws Passed by the Worst Congress of All Time
posted by Artw at 10:55 AM on August 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


...overhead/indirect costs (which can reach 50%...

This is the other side of the story that's not getting a lot of attention, the creep in University overhead charges.

I've been appalled in the past few years about how my university colleagues are being rumbled by the university administrators. Indirect costs, deductions from grants by the university administrators are up substantially in the last decade, in my anecdotal experience. I recall 25% to 30% was common a couple of decades ago. It looks like the new norm for Facilities and Administration (F&A) costs are about 50%. Private universities like Harvard have F&A indirect rates as high as 69% for US federal funding. That figure means that in most cases, more than 2/3rd of all federal grants to Harvard faculty actually go to Harvard, not to research.

That's been one of the major cuts to science in the past few decades, an increasing subsidy of university admin costs by funds earmarked for research. Universities absolutely have administration and facilities to look after, but that cost is increasing being borne by the research funding bodies.
posted by bonehead at 10:55 AM on August 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


On the bright side, we can look forward to the coming renaissance for Religion and superstition.
posted by nikoniko at 10:57 AM on August 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


House GOP Votes To Repeal Obamacare For 40th Time
posted by Artw at 10:57 AM on August 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Private universities like Harvard have F&A indirect rates as high as 69% for US federal funding. That figure means that in most cases, more than 2/3rd of all federal grants to Harvard faculty actually go to Harvard, not to research.

Not that the overhead costs aren't high, but you're misinterpreting this number. 69% overhead means that for ever dollar spent on research, an additional 69 cents goes to the university for facilities and administration costs. So the fraction going to the university is 69/169, or about two fifths.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:07 AM on August 14, 2013


If corporations were more interested in basic research than in monetizing things I would find that reassuring.

Not that I disagree with you, but "applied science" is what results in things like vaccines and therapies. Pure research conducted by universities rarely leaves the universities.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:08 AM on August 14, 2013


Yeah, this article is hitting too close to home right now. Our team recently lost about $1 million in research funding, looking at how to use all of the data gathered by your smartphone to visualize and infer the onset of depression (basically, inferring your social relationships, sleep patterns, and physical activities).

I've been doing many of the same activities that other researchers in the HuffPo article are doing, looking for funds from foundations, putting in a record number of National Science Foundation proposals (mostly rejected), and trying to find alternatives for my postdocs. Some of my colleagues have been also commenting about how NSF reviewing is a waste of time, when maybe one out of twenty or thirty in your panel will be funded.

To some extent, my colleagues and I are lucky to be in computer science, where there are many industry jobs and opportunities for startups. I also want to give a positive shout out to Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel for their ongoing commitment and engagement in funding scholarships and university research (and it looks like Facebook, Yahoo, and many others are starting to do the same).

But a longer-term issue is not just eating our seed, but that the difficulty in securing research funding (and the relatively small amounts of dollars) is forcing us to think smaller, think shorter-term, think constantly about the next budget cycle, think about all the side issues that aren't dealing with research itself. It's sort of like Maslow's hierarchy of needs: when researchers thrashing about in survival mode, they're not really going to be able to come up with the next big thing. And it's not really clear to me when and how things will get better.
posted by jasonhong at 11:09 AM on August 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


As I understand it, those fees were meant to subsidize the broader university, way back when the NSF was created during the cold war. We've both forgotten and abused that purpose today so imho the NSF should restrict the administrative overhead by just rejecting any grants where the university cannot promise say 5% for the university, 10% for the department, and amount for "continuity of personnel" within the department or something.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:14 AM on August 14, 2013


That figure means that in most cases, more than 2/3rd of all federal grants to Harvard faculty actually go to Harvard, not to research.

But that's a bit of a false dichotomy, no?

I'm not saying the negotiated F&A rates aren't ridiculously high, or that the amount of time and effort that goes into to securing grants isn't also ridiculous, but it isn't so simple as "admin vs. research." It's a way more complicated picture than that. It isn't like the president, overpaid though he may or may not be, is writing himself a personal check from the Admin%.

That research lab in that new building the university bought? Yeah, the debt service for that loan comes from the F&A. The cleaning crew that comes in at night? The insurance? The parking lot security? The marketing that keeps the university prestigious-seeming enough to get any grants? All that stuff adds up quickly, and it all benefits the research that goes on.

This isn't to justify university-funding systems. It's fucking chaos and is incredibly bogged down by all manners of unnecessary bureaucracy. But it isn't like someone is profiting directly from all the bureaucracy. It's just the result of a machine, each element of which was at one point installed with the best of intentions, now run amok. Those F&A costs are real, hard costs. That money isn't going into endowment or something like that.

I should also add that fewer and fewer PIs do much of their own grant writing these days. Lots of universities have sometimes up to 100 person grant teams to do most of the legwork. Of course, these people cost a bunch of money, which has to come out of F&A. And you can see the damned if you do position this puts universities in. Research faculty became upset about the amount of time and effort grant writing was taking (which was growing as new funding protocols evolved in the government and private funding sectors). So universities hired grant writers to do the work, which increased the F&A costs, which the faculty then complained about, and around and around.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:16 AM on August 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


We've both forgotten and abused that purpose today so imho the NSF should restrict the administrative overhead by just rejecting any grants where the university cannot promise say 5% for the university, 10% for the department

But part of the issue is that the NSF or whomever cannot just reject the grant based on admin costs, because the F&A percentages are federally negotiated at a university-specific level.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:19 AM on August 14, 2013


We've both forgotten and abused that purpose today so imho the NSF should restrict the administrative overhead by just rejecting any grants where the university cannot promise say 5% for the university, 10% for the department, and amount for "continuity of personnel" within the department or something.

It's not like the universities are unilaterally imposing overhead costs; they're set by negotiation with the federal government.

Cutting overhead universally to 15% would basically kill the American research university. They wouldn't be able to afford to keep the lights on.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:19 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not not saying that increases in F&A are not justified---universities have to continue to to pay staff and keep the lights on. As pointed out above, they've been cut too.

What I am saying is that the funding profile has shifted a fair bit in the past few decades. Even accounting for inflation, $1B of NSF grants goes a lot less further now than it did ten or twenty years ago. This shift of admin costs to grant overhead has been a major way governments have cut total funding to research without having to call it a cut.
posted by bonehead at 11:22 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Artw: "House GOP Votes To Repeal Obamacare For 40th Time"

This comes to mind.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:29 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Huffington Post mourns science? A little late for them to feel remorse.

There goes the funding for my research study "The Interplay of Textile Dynamics and Anatomical Kinetics: A Predictive Model of the Nipple Slip".
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:30 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really wish I had an answer on what to do about the research funding machine at universities. I've spent a good deal thinking about it, as I work currently as a cog in this machine, and I sort of don't have any grand good idea about it.

Part of the reason grant-funding has become the hell it is is because of all the oversights put into place to make sure that research funds weren't being abused - to prevent the exact sort of thing that grant funding even now can be accused of. All of these checks were put into place over the years to make sure that no one was buying a new suit with the grant funds (this used to happen, I'm not even kidding). All of these protocols put into place to measure outcomes, to ensure transparency, to deliver certain outputs, all in the name of proper oversight and fairness.

In a sense, it's exactly the kind of system us democrat-leaning folks would want to see in the financial system. When you put proposals together these days, there are logic models, third-party evaluators, double or triple financial oversight. The result is that all the grants are strongly vetted and outcomes are measured and every dime accounted for. The downside is that the admin costs have become super high, the time and effort in writing and reporting is insane, and the process is fucking slow.

So what do you do? Loosen restrictions on the funding? Most people don't want less oversight on grant funded research. Evaluations and measurable outcomes are largely, though not ubiquitously, and sometimes for good reason, favored. There was an effort at one point to streamline the funding process by sort of centralizing applications so that instead of writing 30 proposals for the same project to 30 grant opportunities, PIs could write just 1. But the agencies and private foundations didn't really want to get on board with that. And so here we are.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:34 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lutoslawski, this is a bit of a tangent to the original discussion, but:

Part of the reason grant-funding has become the hell it is is because of all the oversights put into place to make sure that research funds weren't being abused ... all the grants are strongly vetted and outcomes are measured and every dime accounted for. The downside is that the admin costs have become super high, the time and effort in writing and reporting is insane, and the process is fucking slow.

This is a fantastic point.

We spend so much time on reporting and compliance and assembling lists of every person we've ever collaborated with in the last 4 years to avoid conflicts of interest at reviews, and it is all so much bullshit. You move in more exalted circles than I do (100 person grant-writing teams? I wish I had two people to read mine!) but across the board, reporting and accounting and oversight takes up more and more time, as does grant proposal writing. And funding agencies love love love collaborative proposals that bring together teams of researchers across the country, so we have an endless sequence of teleconferences.

When is the actual science supposed to get done?
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:44 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


> 1) The collapse becomes so hard and so bad that enough tea party supporters stop believing the media lies about how it's all the other guy's fault, and even the vast spiggot of money funding propaganda is no longer enough to buy the election.

That will NEVER happen. Never ever ever. Honestly, can you imagine the Tea Party's reaction to an economic crash? "It's the welfare bums. Cut government spending!"

> 2) demographics swings far enough that even gerrymandering and the aforementioned useful idiots aren't enough to hold a blocking majority together.

Twenty years ago I thought that might happen. I still think that might happen in 20 years... but we don't have 20 years. Most of those 40-50 year olds will still be voting in 20 years...

> 3) Total economic collapse akin to the fall of the soviet union, ultimately ending with a radical shift in the political system. In such a circumstance, _I_wouldn't bet against the security state and wealthy oligarchs ending up in defacto control.

This has been the increasingly looming possibility for last decade. These days, I struggle to imagine any other outcome without some miracle occurring. These seems no possible mechanism to effect change that will result in greater support for "buying civilization" - it's like the political system has become a great ratchet attached to a rope around the throat of government.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:45 AM on August 14, 2013


bonehead: Overhead rates are actually a fair bit lower than they used to be. In the early 90's, a scandal involving what Stanford was doing with their overhead money caused the government to crack down, and rates pretty much topped out at 50% after that (I have noticed some creep up in our overhead over the past few years, but it's still only a tetch over 50%). Stanford was getting 78% before the scandal.

The 69% Harvard overhead rate is very much an exception today (see this article for some comparisons), but it was even worse in the early 90's (when they requested a 104% overhead rate!).
posted by janewman at 11:48 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


...but we don't have 20 years. Most of those 40-50 year olds will still be voting in 20 years...

I suggest you take a look around at the 20-30 year olds. A good number of them are voting for Tea Party candidates, too. To lump this catastrophe entirely on older Americans is to plant your head firmly in the sand.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:54 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


This may have happened earlier in the US than in Canada---in the early 1990s, when I first started helping with proposals, I do remember a rate of 30%. From that last link: '...in 1972, "each dollar of direct research funding paid to universities carried an additional 30 cents to cover the overhead costs allocated to federal research." After leveling off in the late 1980s, by 1994 "the government paid 44 cents in indirect costs for each dollar spent on direct research."'

While 50% is about the norm today in the US, Canadian rates are 40% right now.
posted by bonehead at 12:01 PM on August 14, 2013


> To lump this catastrophe entirely on older Americans is to plant your head firmly in the sand.

That's not at all what I was saying - quite the reverse. I was saying that the hope that time will change demographics enough to erase the Tea Party is wishful thinking.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:02 PM on August 14, 2013


The Pentagon has been one of the most significant, efficient, and lasting forms of government investment in science and education as well as the single largest government economic stimulus project in history.

This is totally right, but could have been better. What if, instead of spending those 10's of billions on tanks, planes, and shit to kill people with, we spent it on rockets, spaceships and what have you to go places with. So that at the end of the day, not only would we have propped up the university system and stimulated science and engineering, we would also have a kick ass space program to boot instead of a bunch of kick ass military toys that people were just itching to use on other people.
posted by spaceviking at 12:06 PM on August 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


That will NEVER happen. Never ever ever. Honestly, can you imagine the Tea Party's reaction to an economic crash? "It's the welfare bums. Cut government spending!"

The astonishing thing is how many ordinary people think they're the rich. Talk radio tells them that Obama wants to redistribute their wealth. A few days ago I was chatting with the owner of a small-town auto parts store who also had a couple of rental properties, who said in so many words that he was in the 1%. Based on the things he told me my guess is that even if the bank isn't the majority owner of his properties, his net worth would still be well shy of a million. I stammered a bit trying to control my impulse to tell him how many orders of magnitude he was out by and that he was probably on economic par with a very ordinary urban white collar worker.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:06 PM on August 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Given the choice between simply keeping people on the payroll doing nothing at all and having them develop and produce new systems, the latter seems preferable.

Why? When there's a near certainty those new systems are going to be used on someone?

Might there be better ways of spending this money if we were concerned solely about the country's economic welfare, not to mention the economic, political, and moral issues involved in projecting military power overseas? Absolutely. I'd like to see that funding ultimately diverted to things like education and transportation. But like it or not, the Pentagon is a critical part of the middle-class US economy, you can't just make it go away without painful economic consequences

I think the only reason that this conclusion seems self-evident is that you're relatively sure that the humongous truncheon of power the US wields won't be directed at you.

From my perspective, we should be working constantly to reduce the idea of America as a nation that is constantly at war with something. It leads to the idea that "we have all this war stuff lying around and if we don't use it, where will we put the next batch of weapons we've ordered?"

Making it sound as though our choices are "Pentagon disappears and now where are the jobs?" vs maintaining a status quo that increases suffering for others is a false dichotomy.
posted by dubold at 12:09 PM on August 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Not that I disagree with you, but "applied science" is what results in things like vaccines and therapies. Pure research conducted by universities rarely leaves the universities.

Without basic research, there can be no applied research. For vaccines and therapies, you generally need to understand the underlying disease.
posted by kersplunk at 12:11 PM on August 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


The future is bright as long as you're rich!

Though they can complain that it's hard to find good help nowadays. The researchers who will cure their diseases won't be funded so when they go shopping for relief down the line, they won't find any.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:22 PM on August 14, 2013


Sure they will. They'll just fly to Europe or Asia.
posted by happyroach at 12:25 PM on August 14, 2013


I don't know about Asia, but, trust me, Europe isn't going to pick up the funding gap. There are some larger projects heavily funded, but there's not a lot of money available there either.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:52 PM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have seen the grant funding stats for a big research university. NIH was by far the leader, then DoD, I think. So yeah, this is a really big deal.
posted by thelonius at 1:54 PM on August 14, 2013


Damn. I'm fed up and ready to leave this country. But I know leaving will not fix the really big failures like this.

Hell, it won't do much for me either. Except maybe dull the constant anger I feel when I listen to the news.
posted by arkham_inmate_0801 at 2:22 PM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


What if, instead of spending those 10's of billions on tanks, planes, and shit to kill people with, we spent it on rockets, spaceships and what have you to go places with.
posted by spaceviking


Hmm.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 3:24 PM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


What if, instead of spending those 10's of billions on tanks, planes, and shit to kill people with, we spent it on rockets, spaceships and what have you to go places with.
posted by spaceviking

Hmm.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man

Sez you...
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:45 PM on August 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Trust me, tha applied sciences (such as agriculture, where I work) are hurting. My grant record is about average, but in the latest cycle of competitive grants to which I applied I was 0 for 3 (one PI, 2 CO-PI). I'm lucky in that I have a 12-month appointment and don't need to bring in salary money. Brazil is looking pretty good right now.
posted by wintermind at 4:43 PM on August 14, 2013


I stammered a bit trying to control my impulse to tell him how many orders of magnitude he was out by and that he was probably on economic par with a very ordinary urban white collar worker.

I'd say the odds are pretty good that he's not as wrong as you think he is. Is he in the 1%?Probably not. But even if he's only in the 80%, he's still likely to be a net loser in terms of what he pays in taxes v. what he receives in direct benefits. Or, at least, that's how he's going to think about it, and it's not a totally irrational way of thinking.
posted by valkyryn at 6:05 PM on August 14, 2013


I think the only reason that this conclusion seems self-evident is that you're relatively sure that the humongous truncheon of power the US wields won't be directed at you.

From my perspective, we should be working constantly to reduce the idea of America as a nation that is constantly at war with something.


Yes, well, that's why you vote in your elections and I vote in mine.
posted by valkyryn at 6:05 PM on August 14, 2013


But even if he's only in the 80%, he's still likely to be a net loser in terms of what he pays in taxes v. what he receives in direct benefits. Or, at least, that's how he's going to think about it, and it's not a totally irrational way of thinking.

It just relies on a pretty big magic asterisk.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:34 PM on August 14, 2013


Libertarians don't use roads.
posted by Artw at 6:43 PM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


A friend of mine is a molecular biologist who is normally developing new treatments for MRSA. Now she is working four days a week and spends most of her time scrambling to keep her research projects afloat.

Superbugs Are Overpowering Antibiotics Even Faster Than the CDC Expected

Maybe Grover Norquist will save us all by drowning the superbugs in a bathtub.
posted by homunculus at 11:25 PM on August 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


But even if he's only in the 80%, he's still likely to be a net loser in terms of what he pays in taxes v. what he receives in direct benefits. Or, at least, that's how he's going to think about it, and it's not a totally irrational way of thinking.

Well it is in as much as he probably thinks most of his money is going to lazy people on welfare and foreign aid, instead of stuff like social security, medicare and defense.
posted by empath at 12:47 AM on August 15, 2013


I'm curious, if you count everything like even sales tax, how many people actually receive more in direct or even indirect benefits than they pay? Anyone actually on welfare probably receives more too, unless we're talking the U.K.'s workfare. Almost everyone in the 1% receives more by virtue of owning companies that suck at the government tit. Not too many people in either group really. If we allow more indirect benefits like employment, then anyone working for government contractors might benefit, this ground sounds massive.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:45 AM on August 15, 2013


Well it is in as much as he probably thinks most of his money is going to lazy people on welfare and foreign aid, instead of stuff like social security, medicare and defense.

Well, no. If you make more than about $80k--which only puts you at the 70th percentile for income, i.e., solidly in the middle class--you're going to pay more into Social Security than you get out of it. Which is where the political conversation in the US starts to become unproductive. When progressives and liberals talk about "the rich" in terms of people, they generally mean the top point or five of incomes. This fails to capture a significant fact that many conservatives care about, namely that many policies supposedly targeted at "the rich" actually affect the entire top quarter of incomes, sometimes more, putting a significant chunk of their effects on the middle class, not "the rich".

That issue aside, this guy is paying now and won't receive benefits until later, which even if we think he's analyzing the lifetime net is still a thing. He might die early and not receive any benefits, and even if he doesn't, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Social Security is an absolutely lousy investment vehicle even for those people who do realize a net gain, and it is not irrational to want to keep the money and invest it yourself (where a mattress would provide a better rate of return) rather than pay into some government redistribution scheme. Now he might do better on Medicare, where the cost/benefit ratio is significantly more favorable, but then again he might not. Not everyone gets cancer and spends three years in the hospital. Some people have a heart attack and are DOA. So there's no real guarantee that he'll see a net benefit in his bank account. Things like defense, infrastructure spending, etc., may provide "benefits" of a sort, but they're not the kind of benefits you can put in your bank account. They're also the kind of thing that everyone benefits from more-or-less equally, so it would not be entirely unreasonable to factor that out of the analysis.

So yeah, maybe he's not analyzing the picture the way you are, but his perspective is not insane, particularly if we limit the analysis to FICA.
posted by valkyryn at 7:25 AM on August 15, 2013


I agree that progressive rhetoric "fails to capture [the] significant fact that .. many policies supposedly targeted at 'the rich' actually affect the entire top quarter of incomes, sometimes more, putting a significant chunk of their effects on the middle class, not 'the rich'." Income tax became regressive ages ago so now the powerful just rob everyone with it.

Amusingly we might've avoided this situation if 'conservatives' in 1913 had done their job by asking liberals to restrict the language of the sixteenth amendment so that income tax remained progressive, say by limiting to whom it applied :

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on the top five percent of incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:42 AM on August 15, 2013


They're also the kind of thing that everyone benefits from more-or-less equally, so it would not be entirely unreasonable to factor that out of the analysis.

It is entirely unreasonable, just as an individual can't say with certainty that they will be the one to need continuing medical care, or a fixed income till the age of 105, they can't say that they will shuffle off before age 65 (or earlier if we're factoring in disability benefits).

One individual cavalierly asserting that "I may not get my money's worth" is exactly like anti-vaccine deniers refusing to contribute to herd immunity.

Things like defense, infrastructure spending, etc., may provide "benefits" of a sort, but they're not the kind of benefits you can put in your bank account.

They're things that your taxes pay for, and create the society in which a 'self-made by my own bootstraps' business can exist. To factor those actual, real, benefits out (particularly infrastructure, what, libertarians really don't use the same roads?) is to reframe the question of what taxes pay for into such an ideologically constrained artificial definition as to lose any meaning.
posted by T.D. Strange at 12:05 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


To factor those actual, real, benefits out (particularly infrastructure, what, libertarians really don't use the same roads?) is to reframe the question of what taxes pay for into such an ideologically constrained artificial definition as to lose any meaning.

So apparently we're abandoning the possibility of political discourse with persons who think that way then.

Good luck with that.
posted by valkyryn at 2:47 PM on August 15, 2013


If we allow more indirect benefits like employment, then anyone working for government contractors might benefit, this ground sounds massive.

"Indirect benefits."

Read about the fiscal multiplier. $1 spent by the government can result in much more than $1 growth in the GDP. The amount of growth in the GDP from government spending may be much greater than the amount of growth that would result should the private sector be allowed to hold onto that money.

Conservatives want you to think that it is a zero sum game. They have convinced most of the US population that it is a zero sum game. It is not a zero sum game.

This is the core of traditional Keynesian economics, and it is the reason that many of us think that it's good when the government spends money.

To (in all seriousness) quote R.B. Cheney, "Deficits don't matter."

The US media is awful on this.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:09 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


NIH Director On Sequestration: 'God Help Us If We Get A Worldwide Pandemic'
An already stagnant budget was made worse this spring when Congress and the White House failed to prevent sequestration. The NIH was forced to cut $1.7 billion from its budget by the end of September, lowering its purchasing power about 25 percent, compared with 2003.

Roughly six months into sequestration, however, the situation is worse than predicted. Internal NIH estimates show that it will end up cutting more than the 700 research grants the institutes initially planned to sacrifice in the name of austerity. If lawmakers fail to replace sequestration at the end of September, that number could rise above 1,000 as the NIH absorbs another 2 percent budget cut on top of the 5 percent one this fiscal year.

"It is so unimaginable that I would be in a position of somehow saying that this country is unable to see the rationality of covering what biomedicine can do," Collins said, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "But I'm not sure from what I see right now that rationality carries the day."

The real-world implications of irrationality, Collins added, are quite grave. His most vivid example is the flu vaccine, which he says could be as close as five years away from discovery. NIH officials are working to insulate that program from budget cuts. But sequestration will, at the very least, mean that research goes slower than it could.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2013


Thanks To Budget Cuts, The Forest Service Is Out Of Money To Fight Wildfires
posted by Artw at 11:14 AM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Federal funds are running out at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center and officials plan to close the site and euthanize hundreds of the tortoises they've been caring for since the animals were added to the endangered species list in 1990.
posted by Artw at 1:31 PM on August 25, 2013


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