21 February 2011

Bogged Down by the 2012 Science Budget

State of the Union addresses rarely stick with me.  Within a few days I’ve typically forgotten everything that was said, no matter how much I like or dislike the president at the time.  All that’s left afterward are vague recollections of vacuous promises about restoring America’s greatness and ensuring our future.  (Oh, and clapping, lots of clapping.)  I don’t know, does that make me a bad citizen?  Or is just that that’s what State of the Union addresses are—pep rallies, in effect, to briefly lift people’s spirits?

But boy, did President Obama catch my ear when he started talking about renewing national interest and investment in scientific research and innovation during last month’s speech.  I especially liked his line that, “It’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”  My geek heart skipped a beat when I heard that.  Now that’s the way to restore America’s greatness and ensure our future, I thought.  (Full disclosure: I also celebrated when Green Bay won the Super Bowl.)

In the wake of my, and many other science-minded folks’, enthusiasm, I was heartened to read that Obama is putting his (or rather our) money where his mouth is.  By most accounts, the scientific community fares pretty well in his recently proposed FY 2012 budget, with apparent increases in “science spending” and the R & D budgets of certain science-friendly agencies (e.g., NSF, DOE).  Hooray!

Then I kept reading, and the joyous outlook started getting a little fuzzy.  Some agencies, including the CDC and EPA are set to lose funding, and, overall, the R & D budget might actually decrease.  So what's the message?

The problem is that it’s not easy (for me at least) to decipher exactly what numbers are meaningful and what numbers should be compared, and consequently how big the increases (or decreases) actually are, and where they occur in the budget.  (Never mind the all-important point of how likely they are to have an impact.)
In trying to make sense of it all, the question that kept occurring to me was, “What constitutes science spending?”  Are we talking total agency budgets, including administrative costs to run the agency, or just portions allocated for research?  What about amounts dedicated by various agencies to science education?  Should the Department of Defense or the Department of Transportation be included as a science agency at all?  Or perhaps just to the extent that they fund sci/tech research and/or have research and development programs?  It’s a dizzying exercise, and as best as I can tell, there is no single answer.

Infographic: Science in Obama's 2012 Budget Proposal
Here's one picture of proposed science funding, but is it a full picture?  The numbers are accurate according to federal budget documents (I checked), but what about agencies like NIST or EPA that aren't included here?  Are total outlays the best metric for comparison of change, or should we be using amounts allocated just for research and development?
Of course, I’m hardly the first person to grapple with these questions.

Just take a look at the recent news reports listed below, each of which gives at least a slightly different view of the state of science funding in the requested 2012 budget:

I abandoned the idea of trying to summarize and compare the findings of these reports when I realized that each one takes its own approach to the numbers based on which agencies are included, which figures from each agency are reported (total agency outlays, “discretionary budget authority” amounts, or only amounts allocated for research and development, etc.), whether inflation is taken into account, how percent changes are calculated (are we comparing 2012 to 2010 or 2011?), and so on.  Add to that the uncertain origin of some of the numbers reported—e.g., the Nature report cites an increase of $66.8 billion for “federal science spending,” in the requested FY 2012 budget that “represents a 6% increase over current funding,” but the accompanying infographic lists 2012 requests for 10 agencies that sum, by my calculation, to $87.4 billion—and it seems not only a dizzying, but a futile endeavor.

I don’t mean to suggest that these news distillations are not each useful or helpful in their own way in helping make sense of the numbers.  The message, though, is that what you get out of the information depends a lot on how you look at it.  Budgets, not least of all the federal budget, are often messy and open to interpretation depending on how they’re presented.  (Big surprise, right?)  If you’re interested in what’s behind, or beyond, someone else’s selective summary, maybe it’s best to poke around for yourself and take away your own message.  Read a bunch of different news summaries, double-check their numbers, look at the budget documents yourself, check out the agencies' own documents (NSF's, for example) and websites for historical data and trends.

That’s how I spent my day, perusing the numbers, trends, summaries, etc.  And it helped.  Despite some lingering fuzziness, I am once again optimistic (albeit cautiously) about the fate of science funding in the upcoming 2012 fiscal year.  Hooray!

Of course, considering the 2011 budget is not yet settled, and the proposed 2012 budget is sure to be heavily debated, altered, and amended before it’s passed, maybe it’s not worth getting worked up by the numbers just yet and losing sleep over it.  Oh wait, I already have.

(For another interesting breakdown of the 2012 proposed budget, check out this comparative graphic from the Office of Management and Budget.)


  1. I very much enjoyed this well-written analysis, Tim.

    The question of what constitutes science spending strikes me as particularly salient. In my two years at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, I was struck by the ratio of administrative support staff to scientists and the extent to which many of the administrative positions seemed to exist to support a vast and inefficient bureaucracy that I, as a scientist, still had to spend a substantial chunk of my time navigating.

  2. I'm surprised NASA's still holding its own after the NIH...

    I appreciate your recognition that take home messages differ from one person to the next. Do you think the data's splintered presentation disservices citizens trying to make sense of it all?

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Amy, yeah, it seems that some administrative staff would certainly be necessary. My guess offhand is that agencies like CDC or NIH, which have much more public exposure, probably do have somewhat larger "support" staffs than say NSF or NIST. As you kind of get at, you wonder who is supporting whom between the scientists and the admininstrators.

    Marianne, hmm, that's a good question. There are so many numbers in the budget(s), it's hard to blame different reports for coming up with different presentations of them. That said, I'm surprised there isn't a little more uniformity. I don't think the splintering as you say necessarily does a disservice. It would be hard for one report to explain everything, so having different takes is probably a good thing. The problem is when the reports fail to adequately explain what the numbers that they're quoting mean and where the numbers came from, or worse, if they make inaccurate or unsubstantiated assertions about them.

  4. Very smart analysis, Tim. It is very difficult to sort out what this all means except, I think, that we're not looking at a happy trend. And I'd love myself to know what the behind the scenes lobbying looked like on these budget measures. Excellent work - a national caliber blog.