American science and the budget crisis

Last week’s issue of Science included a number of short articles on the effects of the budget crisis on science funding in the United States. Most emphasized the challenges that budget cuts present for administrators at NSF, NASA, NIH, and other science agencies who must determine the priorities for research funding. As I read the essays, I wondered about the contributions that taking a longer perspective on American science funding or the agencies involved might provide to these debates.

For example, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee writes about a dilemma facing NASA administrators, in particular those who manage the agency’s astronomy and planetary science initiatives. They reportedly must choose between supporting big-budget, high profile programs and the many smaller programs that gather little media attention. Bhattacharjee quotes one administrator who sees smaller programs as more important, in that they “maintain and train our next generation of scientists,” while another argues that the flagship programs and other high-profile projects are essential because they not only fund many researchers but sustain interest and momentum in aerospace research as a whole.

I suspect that this is a debate that has been ongoing for a long time (those out there who are more familiar with NASA history can tell me), visible not only now but also at other points in the agency’s past when funding dollars have seemed short. What would a look back at tradeoffs made in previous decades tell us about the effects of supporting flagships over small programs — or even about the rhetorical power of claims to maintaining and training scientists versus inspiring interest in aerospace science, both within the agency and among a broader public?

Or, to take another example, a piece by David Malakoff pointed out that the association of oceans and atmosphere in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is causing problems for ocean scientists, whose research budgets are pinched by the expensive satellite-based research programs associated with weather and climate monitoring. 

NOAA was formed in 1970 by bringing together a number of existing environment-related agencies. This makes me wonder whether the current division of interests was not always a problem in an agency, which though formed to foster “a better understanding of the total environment,” was cobbled together from organizations that had studied narrow aspects of that total environment.  If so, it might make sense to locate the problems faced by oceanographers not in the ever-more-sophisticated and ever-more expensive satellite technologies but in the organization of the agency itself, a conclusion that points towards a more radical intervention that mere budgetary juggling.
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