Science Budget

By Stormy

New Scientist has some kind words for the Obama science budget:

Both [the budget and the stimulus package] are packed with funding for science and technology ventures, from healthcare research to an electricity supergrid. The stimulus alone hands out more than $20 billion for basic research and about $50 billion to support renewable power and energy efficiency.

The stimulus bill calls for the funds to be spent in two years, though in some areas it may take longer. In terms of dollars per year, it is arguably the most cash that has ever been pumped into scientific research. Even the Apollo programme and the Manhattan project – which cost over $200 billion and $35 billion at today’s value – were spread over 11 and five years, respectively

Yet in the light of US budget plans for 2010, it is clear that Obama’s goal is about more than giving the economy a kick-start by spending on scientists’ salaries and test tubes. In the detail of the stimulus are key components of a wider agenda, aspects of which might have triggered a fight if they had not been hurried through.

Take healthcare: the stimulus includes $1.1 billion for research into the comparative effectiveness of treatments. This is a bold move, given the powerful organisations that profit from the status quo, such as big pharma.

The quickest change to emissions will come from funding for energy efficiency measures, such as money to improve federal buildings. Based on the impact of previous spending, the measures should produce cumulative savings of 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, says the Alliance to Save Energy, a lobby group based in Washington DC. Overall emissions have increased by an average of 70 million tonnes per year over the last 15 years.

Other elements of the stimulus bill will save further emissions. The hybrid scheme, for example, hands a $7500 tax rebate to purchasers of plug-in vehicles. The funding will put around 270,000 plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road over 10 years, which could save another 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over the lifetime of those vehicles, says Simon Mui of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.
The stimulus package and budget for 2010 also include windfalls for the main agencies that fund basic research. Officials are scrambling to work out how to spend their allocations effectively.

There are, of course, difficulties: Can that amount of money be absorbed that quickly and wisely? As example, consider the following:

“It is like going from starvation to a banquet,” says George Sterzinger of the Renewable Energy Policy Project, a think tank based in Washington DC. However, unpleasant side effects may result from all this gorging, he says. If turbine manufacturers with limited stock put up their prices to meet extra demand, then the price of electricity from wind could rise to twice that of coal.

There are always unintended side effects.

Regardless, I would rather reinvigorate science–even if it hurts the pharmaceutical interests and their investors–than see it poured into the black bank hole created by the financial engineers.

You will hear much carping about the some of the directions the budget is taking.

Kramer of Mad Money, for example, was apoplectic over the damage being done to the pharmaceutical companies: Bad for investors in those companies.

Now, if you want a quicker and longer stiffy, then the pharmaceuticals are the place to go. Corporate profits drive corporate interests. That drug is best that can be sold to the most people. Such is the myopia of the free market.

There is a place in the U.S. for both the free market and directed research via public investment. (In the same vein I would have both private banks and one conservative national bankā€”the tension between the two might be productive.)

I wish, however, that we did not have to go from famine to feast so quickly. If we had a bit more vision, we would have had all this well under way a long time ago.