putting science on the chopping block, again
Although economics is an inexact science at best, and many would hesitate to even call it a science, it does have a few universally accepted rules backed up by math, and one of the most important ones says that if you want to be financially healthy, you mustn’t spend more than you earn for long. Sure, you can borrow money to make it through some rough patches, but since debts have to be paid back with interest, you’re going to be in worse shape if you borrow too much. Far too many people learned this lesson in the Great Recession and a number of governments across the world are starting to feel the pain as well. Even the world’s superpower is not immune to a financial malaise and it looks increasingly likely that eventually, it will have to institute some strict austerity measures to adopt a more sensible budget. The only problem is that our politicians tend to be way too busy fighting partisan battles than tackle real world problems constructively, and when they try to play the role of fiscally responsible public stewards, they often have their eyes set on all the wrong targets.
Just take Senator Coburn’s dire warnings about an apocalyptic future unless we deal with monetary waste for example. When asked what government programs we could cut from public budget, his first instinct was to go after science, technology, and education, saying that consolidating 105 different programs intended to get more people into STEM disciplines wouldn’t affect a soul and play a part in a $50 billion cost cutting effort. Oh great. We’ll slice out an infinitesimal sliver of government expenditures and all it will cost us is a few focused efforts that fund competitions, scholarships, grants, and educational efforts to teach engineers and scientists the nation needs to stay the world’s top R&D center. I’m not even talking about funding R&D because most of our lawmakers either couldn’t be bothered to give a damn about research or use scientists as targets for a furious partisan horde from which they extract votes. This is just for encouraging kids and adults to consider exploring what STEM could do for them. Unfortunately, at this rate, it won’t be much. If they get lucky, they may get a position as a poorly paid scientist at a university, constantly urged by administrators getting astounding salaries to bring in more grants to pay for their new offices and pay raises, and scrutinized by bean-counting quants who substitute quantity for quality. Or become production programmers and engineers, who usually get well paying jobs, but who won’t be doing much research or experimentation at work.
All right, fine, going after already paltry science programs to cut costs may be a bad idea, but why are there so many different programs, you may ask. Well, that’s because they’re targeted towards different disciplines and different people. You can’t promote physics to high school juniors the same way you’d promote engineering to adults going back to college to either finish their degrees or get new ones, just like you can’t entice them with the same competitions. Science is a methodology that covers many areas of study and exploration, and every one of those areas has certain goals, requires specific knowledge, and asks specific questions. Wrapping all those different ideas and research areas into one package to streamline costs would result either in a bloated central agency which is even more inefficient at processing its paperwork and hiring experts for every grant or application it gets to figure out what exactly is being funded and why, or an understaffed, overwhelmed agency swamped with papers and short-staffed on people who can make sense of them. Unfortunately, lawmakers rarely strike a balance when Getting Things Done™ because they’re looking for a splashy bullet point on their resumes and saying that they consolidated agencies or created new ones is a lot sexier than noting that they asked the aides to figure out ways separate agencies could consolidate and streamline clerical work to save a few million dollars a year in office and administrative expenses.
If lawmakers really wanted to cut costs, they’d be looking at all the earmarks they hand out to repay those who gave them cash for their campaigns, and riders to fund museums and cultural centers for themselves or their friends, or to approve a pet project in exchange for their vote on a bill. A few hundred million in riders on this or that bill and a few billion in a spending bill or two, and soon we’re talking about real money. And that’s money they don’t want to touch so they go after science and technology. No wonder the only place where science and technology are actually being fully funded is the Department of Defense. Those are pretty much the only R&D budgets lawmakers aren’t about to go after with torches and pitchforks while pretending they care about fiscal responsibility and cutting back on wasteful government spending.