This seems to a common concern of science blogs right now, so I’ll throw in my thoughts as well.
First, it’s mid-March and the US doesn’t have a budget for 2011 yet. Basically, the entire government is living off of emergency spending bills that last for 1-3 weeks. I guess we could keep doing that indefinitely and not worry about a budget. Except that’s how US citizens get deeply in debt, really quickly… oh wait, the US government is already in debt.
Let’s look at the 2010 US budget. Obama got 3.55 trillion (with a ‘t’) dollars. That’s a lot of money. The problem is that the US didn’t bring in that much money through taxes, tariffs, licenses and fees. Oops. My bank gets really mad when I spend more than I bring in (so does my wife, but that’s a whole ‘nother animal).
So everyone wants to cut the budget. Raising taxes is political suicide right now. Obama won’t do that until after he’s been elected for his second term (and the way the republicans are self-destructing, he’ll get it in a landslide). Sorry, back to the budget.
The US has some mandatory spending. This can’t be cut, well I guess it could be cut, but it would be very, very bad. This includes social security, medicare, medicaid, interest on debt, disaster relief which totals to just over 2 trillion dollars. That’s one-third of the US budget.
So any savings really need to come from the other 1/3 of the budget. Well, what’s in there? Everything.
The single biggest expense is defense at 663 billion dollars. That’s over 50% of what’s left. The republicans don’t want to cut defense (for religious and control reasons). The democrats can’t cut defense or they look like wieners and lose a bunch of votes.
So we’re down to 700 billion dollars that effectively run the entire country and that’s where all the cutting has to come from. Think about that a second… all the government that we deal with is run on 700 billion dollars. Every salary for non-defense employees, every building, every bit of paperwork is run off of 700 billion dollars. Yet, the US budget is 5 times that. Creepy isn’t it?
Where does science fit in here? Sadly, if you list the budget by dollars highest at the top, the first department that spends any money on science is 9th on the list. The Department of Energy (total budget 26 billion, yeah 1/30th of defense) spends some on research, but they also have to oversee every nuclear reactor, bit of nuclear waste, the national electricity grid and production, etc. So they don’t have that much money for research, but they do spend some.
There are more departments that spend some money on science research on the list. Here they are:
- $32.0 billion – National Institutes of Health In 2000, a report from a Joint Economic Committee of Congress outlined the benefits of NIH research. It noted that some econometric studies had given its research, which was funded at $16 billion a year in 2000, a rate of return of 25 to 40 percent per year. It also found that of the 21 drugs with the highest therapeutic impact on society introduced between 1965 and 1992, public funding was “instrumental” for 15
- $26.0 billion – Department of Agriculture I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest that there might be some research done or granted by this department. But they have other huge expenses that really limit their research budget.
- $18.7 billion – National Aeronautics and Space Administration It may surprise you, but the research budget for NASA is very, very small now. Now that the shuttle is gone and that billion dollar hole in the sky isn’t soaking up all of NASA’s funds, they might get into some more research.
- $7.0 billion – National Science Foundation Finally, pure research. That’s it, 7 billion dollars. Just over 1% of the defense budget (which I freely admit that defense does sponsor research, but not open, real science research.)
Even if the government cut the entire NIH, NSF and NASA budgets, that 58 billion dollars (the US spent double that in interest expenses in 2010) will do absolutely nothing to help the government debt or the economy. In fact, it would probably do more harm than good.
Think about it, you have $25 to last you the rest of the month. You could by some food and some gas to get to work or you could put it towards your $10,000 credit card bill. Which should you do? Honestly, it won’t help that much toward the bill and it will do more harm because you can’t get to work to make more money.
Why do we need basic science research?
Well, think of something that we use in our society that wasn’t developed by the scientific method at some point in the last 200 years. Other than the wheel and boats, there’s not much on that list. Computers, radar, airplanes, internal combustion engines, electricity, magnets, logic circuits, heck, most of our food, transportation, etc, etc, etc.
Almost nothing exists in the modern world that didn’t come from science. Cutting basic research into everything from particle physics to cancer research would be bad. Who knows when the next breakthrough might come in. We need that money to keep doing what science does best, finding out how the world works so we can take advantage of it.
How can you help? Write your congress people. They need to know that we think science is important (and tell them what you want cut *coughdefensecough* too).