Show Me the Money

Inside Higher Ed notes in passing a new bill from the Senate supporting scientific research. There’s a lot of bafflegab there, but if you scroll to the bottom, you can find the executive summary:

More specifically, the Commerce and Science Division of the America COMPETES Act would:

Increase Research Investment by:

  • Establishing the Innovation Acceleration Research Program to direct federal agencies funding research in science and technology to set as a goal dedicating approximately 8% of their Research and Development (R&D) budgets toward high-risk frontier research.
  • Authorizing the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) from approximately $703 million in Fiscal Year 2008 to approximately $937 million in Fiscal Year 2011 and requiring NIST to set aside no less than 8 percent of its annual funding for high-risk, high-reward innovation acceleration research.
  • Directing NASA to increase funding for basic research and fully participate in interagency activities to foster competitiveness and innovation, using the full extent of existing budget authority.
  • Coordinating ocean and atmospheric research and education at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies to promote U.S. leadership in these important fields.

Develop an Innovation Infrastructure by:

  • Establishing a President’s Council on Innovation and Competitiveness to develop a comprehensive agenda to promote innovation and competitiveness in the public and private sectors.
  • Requiring the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study to identify forms of risk that create barriers to innovation.

While I’m as happy as the next guy to see legislation passed that supports science in any way, I have to say, I’m not impressed by this list. Five of the six itesm are meaningless piffle, as far as I’m concerned.

The only one that strikes me as genuinely useful is the second item: Increasing NIST’s funding. The rest of it is meaningless crap– do we really need yet another blue-ribbon panel to churn out white papers that nobody will read? And does anybody think that a mandate to support “high-risk frontier research” will lead to anything other than the re-labelling of existing projects as “high-risk frontier research?” The phrase is sufficiently vague that it could apply to just about anything that’s already getting government funding.

If you want to support scientific innovation, the way to do that is with money. If “high-risk frontier research” is not being funded, it’s because there isn’t enough money to fund everything that deserves funding. Adding vague additional directives to the funding agencies isn’t going to help anything– even assuming that agencies could accurately identify “frontier research” that will “increase competetiveness” (whatever that means), in the absence of new funding it will be funded only at the expense of other worthwhile research that doesn’t happen to fit the buzzwords of the moment.

Symbolic affirmations of support for science are all very nice, but as Randy Newman said, it’s money that matters.