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Government Republicans The Almighty Buck Science

The Cost of the US Government Shutdown To Science 355

Posted by Soulskill
from the all-about-the-benjamins dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Richard Schiffman writes in The Guardian that the Republican-led shutdown of the U.S. government caused significant damage to many scientific programs. For example: shortly before the shutdown started, over a hundred scientists had gathered to perform critical equipment tests on the James Webb Space Telescope — Hubble's successor — and that work was unable to continue without the government around. 'Not only did this delay cost the program an estimated $1M a day, but, given NASA's tight schedule, some tests may never get done now.' It doesn't stop there: 'This is only one of untold thousands of projects that were mothballed when Congress's failure to approve a budget defunded the US government at the start of the month. Federal websites were taken offline, scientists couldn't receive emails, attend meetings, or interact with their colleagues. Crucial environmental, food safety and climate monitoring programs were either suspended, or substantially scaled back.' Schiffman provides a few more examples, including one project that's losing a year's worth of work and equipment that will end up buried under snow in Antarctica. But it goes beyond even the basic funding issues; in many cases, scientific work is simply too intertwined with the government to continue without it. Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' center for science and democracy, said, 'It is all so interconnected now. Federal researchers collect data that is utilized by researchers in academia, by people working in industry, at state and local levels, so when you ask how dependent are we on the federal government in terms of science, it's a bit like asking: do you need your left leg?'"
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The Cost of the US Government Shutdown To Science

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  • Better model needed (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Sunday October 20, 2013 @10:35AM (#45180445) Homepage Journal

    Science is too important to be dependent on a funding source that is 17 trillion dollars in debt. It's *all* going to dry up at some point, and probably rather suddenly when it does. Talk to the history department if this is unclear.

    With all the great thinkers in science, perhaps research into better funding models would be worth the effort.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Kickstarter!

      • There are actually some crowdfunding tools out there. One issue is that it's hard to explain highly technical experiments within the required 6 pages or so for a grant, let alone something that a crowd would be willing to read. Another issue is that a lot of basic research has no payoffs that are certain, which seems important for kickstarter. You can't exactly promise beta access to the data to an experiment which may not yield results.

        Also, just putting this out there, and sorry if it ruffles any
        • by khallow (566160)

          One issue is that it's hard to explain highly technical experiments within the required 6 pages or so for a grant, let alone something that a crowd would be willing to read.

          But a reasonable thing to expect.

          but funding from the federal government is still more reliable than crowdfunding

          The government doesn't even care if you don't make any sort of scientific progress at all. If a truck were to back into the James Webb Space Telescope and hopelessly total it, there would some blame finding (with the truck driver instantly fired and some other people after a suitable period of public reflection via committee), but the end result would be a collective shrug and the signing of new checks. That's because most of the money for JWST has been spent. As far as Con

    • The answer is to find a better model for how government operates. 17 trillion is a problem for more than just science. And shutting down government in order to make a political statement is flat out deranged.

      • by rmstar (114746) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @11:30AM (#45180765)

        The answer is to find a better model for how government operates. 17 trillion is a problem for more than just science.

        17 trillion dollars sounds like a shipload of money, but you have to put in perspective: It's not that much compared with the GDP of the US. Given how gigantic the US is in terms of assets and operations, and in political and economic power, 17 trillion is quite ok.

        The biggest structural problem the US has is its insane right. The debt ceiling standoff was very, very dangerous, far more dangerous than even 20 trillion $ of debt would be. It would have taken very little additional bad luck to triger a financial calamity of biblical proportions.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by khallow (566160)

          17 trillion dollars sounds like a shipload of money, but you have to put in perspective: It's not that much compared with the GDP of the US.

          LOL. Maybe to a galaxy spanning civilization this would be small potatoes, but it's kind of big for the US.

          The biggest structural problem the US has is its insane right.

          They keep holding back the suicidal left which is a bad thing apparently.

          The debt ceiling standoff was very, very dangerous, far more dangerous than even 20 trillion $ of debt would be.

          As I noted elsewhere, anyone who cared about a few week default of US on short term bonds had already sold them off.

          It would have taken very little additional bad luck to triger a financial calamity of biblical proportions.

          Reminds me of that Heinlein quote about "bad luck". There's a simple solution here: spend less at the federal level and stop getting in the way of people who create wealth.

          • by sjames (1099) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @07:17PM (#45183907) Homepage

            Had G.W. Bush not gone nuts giving his buddies tax breaks and if he hadn't dragged the U.S. into another war, we wouldn't have that debt now. When Clinton left office, we were slowly paying it down.

            So yeah, crazy Republicans.

      • by SuperTechnoNerd (964528) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @01:29PM (#45181587)
        Stop gerrymandering
        Limit campaign funding
        Curtail Lobbying
        Impose term limits
        Realize corporations "are not people too.."
        Improve education
    • by jcr (53032)

      Bingo. I couldn't agree with you more.

      Even more than the fiscal unreliability, the big problem with government funding is that it makes science a political football, with brain-dead demagogues getting to decide what is and isn't studied according to their religion.

      -jcr

      • And the alternative - corporate funded research - is immune from financial instability and PBHs deciding what is and isn't studied?
        • And the alternative - corporate funded research - is immune from financial instability and PBHs deciding what is and isn't studied?

          *The* alternative? Nobody could think up something better? We have lots of smart people on this planet - I'm hopeful that somebody can think up a way to fund science that involves neither one nor 435 PHB's making such decisions.

          • If somebody gives you money to do something, there's always the risk that they'll try to stick their noses in. Doesn't matter if it's a government, a corporation, or an eccentric billionaire.

            You could go around to rich people's homes, steal all their money, and use that to fund your research. The rich people would have absolutely no way to interfere with your research. You'd be your own boss. There are some moral problems with this approach, which I frankly think are overblown, but the bigger problem is the

            • by mspohr (589790)

              Going around to rich people's houses and stealing money...
              This is what some people call taxes.
              Government collects them and decides how they are spent.

          • by dkf (304284)

            *The* alternative? Nobody could think up something better? We have lots of smart people on this planet - I'm hopeful that somebody can think up a way to fund science that involves neither one nor 435 PHB's making such decisions.

            The simplest way is to prohibit free access to publicly-collected data and research outcomes (papers, presentations, etc.) and instead require direct and immediate payment for anyone to see the data concerned. Then it can all become a self-financing activity.

            A very large number of businesses would utterly hate that.

            The real problem is that there's plenty going on, but it can't be done for free, for nothing. It's too hard to do and (overall) too important to leave to the random whims of gentlemen amateurs; t

      • by the gnat (153162) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @12:43PM (#45181259)

        Even more than the fiscal unreliability, the big problem with government funding is that it makes science a political football, with brain-dead demagogues getting to decide what is and isn't studied according to their religion.

        The structural problems go even deeper than that. The demagogues don't actually directly interfere that often, although it's especially annoying when they do. The bigger problems are a) the supply-and-demand problem created by poor and/or inconsistent government policy, and b) the uncertainty created by crises like the shutdown and the sequester. Naturally, neither of these problems is unique to government service! People working for companies have the same problems all the time, and I can't imagine that being stalked by MBAs much more fun than worrying about Congress. But most scientists in the public sector have made an implicit trade: we accept lower salaries in exchange for decent benefits, decent job security, and the freedom to study what excites us without worrying about "how do I bring this to market within 18 months?" Most of us spent our 20s in school just to qualify for these jobs - which is not quite as bad as it sounds (we get a small stipend at least, and flexible hours), but most academics postpone having children until relatively late, and we get to watch our more financially motivated peers make vastly more money, often with less formal education. The base starting salary for an NIH-funded postdoctoral fellow is $40,000; that is by definition someone with a PhD, usually around 30 years old. There are some truly mediocre postdocs out there, but many brilliant ones - and if they want an academic career, they basically have no choice but to spend several years in such a position. Meanwhile, their friends with real jobs are probably making at least twice as much.

        On top of this, the success rate for grants has dropped precipitously, and the sequester has made it even worse. The biomedical research sector grew with NIH funding, and now that funding is contracting, there are more people competing for less money. So even the long-term job security isn't very good any more.

        I'm relatively lucky; I managed to only spend a little more than a year as a postdoc before getting a more permanent position, and the research group I work for is well-funded, non-controversial, and very successful in our field. But I still make tends of thousands less than my grad school friends who work in industry. And it's far from certain that we'll continue to get funding. More importantly, a large fraction of the people who control the purse strings think I'm a lazy, useless welfare queen, and want to close down the department I work for and send our jobs to China. Or, barring that, they're happy to do that temporarily just out of spite because they think the Heritage Foundation's healthcare plan is a socialist takeover. So, after spending most of my adult life working overtime (unpaid, of course) while assuring myself that the implicit bargain was worth it, leaving academia is not a hard decision for me to make. Fuck this, if you want to treat me like shit and continually threaten me with unemployment, you'd better fucking pay me for it. None of the public (certainly none of Congress) understands what I do anyway, so why should I care whether or not I'm contributing to human health and knowledge?

    • The funding problem seems to be harder than the science itself nowadays. There's so much science and technology research we could be doing, but aren't, or at a very slow pace. The main issue is finding funding for fundamental research (for which applications haven't yet been found) and research with a very long payoff period. Historically, this is the type of research that has enabled the bulk of our rapid progress in the last couple of centuries. However, governments around the world are under pressure to

    • Maybe you could site a reference? Also the use of "funding", that alone shows the sand under your knowledge base. The easiest way to understand something is to try and do it. And maybe who knows, you'll find the cure for Farm Subsidy Entitlements, (a.k.a. FSE)? There's also a need to find a cure for Oil Industry Entitlements, and Hedge Fund Manager Entitlements. Be the first?
    • by GryMor (88799)

      17 trillion in debt, borrowed at negative effective interest rates... I need problems like that.

    • by jbolden (176878) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @11:57AM (#45180937) Homepage

      That funding source also has the unlimited ability to print money. And there is no source more viable than the government.

  • Thank you (Score:3, Insightful)

    by careysb (566113) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @10:37AM (#45180455)
    Thank you G.O.P. and the Tea Party
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You're welcome. Please remember to vote in 2014 and 2016.

    • by jcr (53032)

      Don't forget the other brand of the Ruling Party. Their responsibility for the debacle is exactly the same.

      -jcr

    • by gtall (79522)

      For this G.O.P. and Tea Party, the cut back in research is considered a victory, not the least that climate research has been cut back. They and their fellow travelers, the Libertarians, have no use for government funded research.

      As for finding other sources of funding, nothing comparable to the fed. dollars is on the horizon anywhere.

    • I think the Tea Party might find more enjoyment by using another host?
  • by cowwoc2001 (976892) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @10:51AM (#45180547)

    Is that the government is spending too much money. It doesn't matter how you try to spin this, the fact of the matter is they need to start cutting costs.

    Notice I'm not blaming one party over another. I just think the American people are doing a disservice to themselves when they accept mud-slinging in order to distract them from this fact. Keep your eye on the ball and demand that *any* party that is elected into power balance the budget and start paying back the debt.

    • by gtall (79522)

      Yes, the government spends too much, but it is a large government and can walk and chew gum at the same time. 2/3's of the budget is entitlements. Even SS is now in the red every year. It still has its trust fund, but those are government I.O.U.s. The government has to borrow when those get cashed.

      From The Congressional Research Service: Federal Research and Development Funding, FY2012 research funding was $138.869 Billion (actually a lot higher than I figured). Obama requested for FY2013 $140.820 Billion.

      • by stenvar (2789879)

        Also, whacking Defense tends to knock pts off the GDP so that will cause the deficit to reappear.

        The taxes used to pay for Defense knock off more points of the GDP.

        Whacking science similarly except the effect gets greater the farther into the future one looks.

        I generally favor federal funding for basic scientific research because I suspect has one of the best ROIs for all federal spending. But even that is merely a guess. Nobody knows whether it actually does.

  • Can someone explain why websites were taken down during the shutdown? I would have thought that the expenditure needed to keep a site up and running would already have been paid in advance, and that the sites were not so fragile that they could have withstood 2 weeks unattended operation.

    Was it a precautionary or political matter?

    • Because if Skynet had infiltrated the government web servers, then no one would have been around to spread the alarm.

      Jeez, you Australians just don't understand risk management, do you?

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      I would have thought that the expenditure needed to keep a site up and running would already have been paid in advance, and that the sites were not so fragile that they could have withstood 2 weeks unattended operation.

      What? You should be checking sites several times a day. Hopefully, via an automated system... which you're going to have to check up on periodically.

  • Has the time come to replace the present US governmental system with a swarm of bees? The present system is clearly grade C!
  • what i don't understand is why government is funded by these large, all-inclusive funding bills. who spends money like that? what individual or organization of any kind(commercial, non-profit, religious, whatever) do you know that plans their entire yearly budget at once with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition? let every funding measure stand or fall on it's own.
  • So here's a question. Let's say you happen to have a full time job that pays you $50k a year. On January 1, do you look at all the bills you know you're going to have for the entire year and all the things you want to buy and spend all of that money on January 1? Or do you take all the money you have to spend on bills and put it aside somewhere so you don't inadvertently spend it on something else like a Ferrari? Or do you deal with things one month at a time?

  • by John Jorsett (171560) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @11:57AM (#45180945)

    .... that this kind of dependence on government funding means that government will increasingly assert control over where and how research will be conducted in the future, and how (or whether) results will be reported? If your project's existence depends on a particular paymaster, are you really going to jeopardize it by angering him? Maybe you're okay with the present party in power, but if you give government this kind of control over your funding, sooner or later people with opposing ideas are going to be in charge and will use those same levers in ways you won't be happy with.

  • from 1990 to 2012 u.s government revenue a year was about 2 trillion(1990) to 3+ trillion 2012, about 40+ trillion in taxes for the past 23 years collected. And yet, we still can't have a universal healthcare system like Canada. Where did all the fucking money go to??? SS full of IOU's since government put their grabby hands in it to pay for other things. We don't need any more new fucking taxes on the books since money just disappears from the government so easily. I guess government does not care abou

"Consequences, Schmonsequences, as long as I'm rich." -- "Ali Baba Bunny" [1957, Chuck Jones]

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