The Funding Issue

Gordon Watts is mad as hell about funding cuts, and blaming petty partisan politics:

As far as I can tell, here is what happened:

  • Congress just about finishes the omnibus spending bill. [Snark: exactly how late was this!?]
  • At the last minute Bush says he will veto it unless it comes at his number. [Snark: Presumably this is to prove that he is a fiscal conservative.]
  • Democrats and Republicans in congress go round and round. They do not have the votes to override a veto in the end.
  • Democrats give up and say “he wants it 22 billion cheaper? OK, we’ll do it”. [Snark: how did we not miss this big big warning sign that something bad was about to happen!? 20-20 hindsight!]
  • Perhaps 4 days later the bill is ready. They (the democrats or more likely the staffers) when through the bill looking for things that Bush wanted and cut them. ITER, which got nailed, was a presidential initiative. America Competes? Something Bush wanted. I am positive that no one involved would claim this is how it was done, but all fingers I can see point in that direction. [I have no snark here: sad]

What the hell were they thinking? They cut these programs just because they are pissed off at the White House? We elected them there to be intelligent about this. I don’t care that the White House is being a total idiot about this (i.e. not working with congress)– two wrongs don’t make a right!!!

I’m sure that played some role in the cuts, but it’s not the whole story. If they were just looking to piss Bush off by cutting programs he favors, there are bigger and better targets than the DoE science programs– the entire Iraq war, for example.

To get the rest of the explanation, you need to look at what else the de-funded projects have in common: These are all inadequately motivated projects without a strong natural constituency. They cut those projects because they knew there would be no consequences. They were able to cut these projects because we have failed at our jobs as scientists.

Before you start pelting me with bricks, let me be clear what I mean. By “inadequately motivated,” I don’t mean that the science is bad– on the contrary, most of the projects Gordon lists are doing great science, and their loss will do significant damage.

They’re not inadequately motivated in a scientific sense, they’re inadequately motivated in a political sense– the general public does not know what these projects are, or why they’re important. And if the public doesn’t know why they’re important, they’re not going to be outraged when they’re cut.

Look at the big-ticket items on the list of things cut:

  • The International Linear Collider. This is still vaporware, intended as a follow-up machine for the LHC, which isn’t on-line yet. Why is it important? I’m not entirely clear on that– my limited understanding suggests that it would allow greater precision than the LHC in a similar energy range, sort of “zooming in” on anything interesting that they find. I’m not sure, though, and I’m a professional physicist and science blogger– if I don’t know what it’s for, you can bet that the average guy on the street doesn’t know why it’s worth $15 million, let alone the $85 million they were supposed to get.
  • ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. This is supposed to be a big fusion reactor of a tokomak design, to test the feasibility of generating power through nuclear fusion. I’ve been dimly aware of this as an idea that’s been kicking around for twenty years or so. When I heard its funding had been cut, though, my first reaction was surprise that it was actually at the stage where we were expected to be spending significant money on it.
  • The America COMPETES Act (the name is one of those godawful acronyms that they generate on Capitol Hill, and whoever is responsible ought to be pilloried). This is, apparently, the implementation/ authorization bill for the American Competitiveness Initiative. It’s basically a collection of vague promises to spend more money on a bunch of buzz-words.

In political terms, none of these carries any weight at all. The ILC doesn’t exist yet, and nobody knows what it’s for; ITER is one of the best-kept secrets in billion-dollar energy research, and was only formally created within the last year; and the “COMPETES” thing is pretty vague and only four months old. With the possible exception of the ILC, none of these projects has been around long enough to become an established source of funding with a major constituency that could make trouble, and the general public has zero attachment to any of them. The political consequences for cutting these programs are nil.

Whose fault is that? Ours. Well, not me and Gordon specifically, but physics as a discipline, and scientists in general. We have done a pretty good job of getting funding for science over the years, but a piss-poor job of selling science to the general public. These programs are safe to cut because nobody care about them. Nobody even knows that they should care about them.

Look at the news stories about the omnibus spending bill– even the Bush Administration doesn’t bother to mention the specific science programs that were cut. If there were an audience out there who cared that these programs were cut, do you think they’d miss a chance to use the loss of ITER as a club to bash the Democrats? Instead, they’re running with a really lame “too much pork” complaint, because nobody cares about the science projects that were cut.

And we’re not doing a good job of creating that audience. Take a look at the APS press release lamenting the bill. There’s not a compelling sentence in the entire thing. Cutting ITER is bad because it “critically damages American credibility as a reliable scientific partner throughout the world and compromises the nation’s standing as a host of future international scientific facilities,” and the ILC “represents the future of American high- energy physics.” That’s adequate reason for outrage among people who already care about the future of American high-energy physics, but that’s not a large set. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even care that much about the future of American high-energy physics, and this doesn’t offer any reason why I should care.

There’s no reason why this has to be the case. There’s clearly a market out there for stories about high-energy physics– witness the nine thousand “The LHC is coming!” articles published in the last year. People like this stuff, and want to read about it, and it ought to be possible to leverage that into support for funding it.

And the ILC is probably in the best position of the lot, because they’re coming out of the particle physics community, which has gotten pretty good at marketing. There’s simply no excuse for ITER not to have a better base of support, though. This is a high-tech energy alternative, at a time when everybody is all in a tizzy about global warming and energy. If you can’t sell fusion research, you’re just not trying.

(And, for the record, they’re not trying. Their web page is an embarassment. It’s horribly out of date– the last news story in the sidebar is from mid-December, and most of their background material was last updated in early 2006. If you want one fact that demonstrates what a shoddy job it is, here you go: The ITER web pages doesn’t explain what “ITER” stands for. Whoever is responsible for this ought to be the first person out the door when the layoffs come.)

If we want science funding to stop being the first thing on the block when Congress needs to cut something, we need to do a better job of reaching out to the public to create a broad base of support for science (even respect for science would be a start). That means reaching out to write articles, blogs, and web sites aimed at the general public, or at least providing support for those who do outreach to a broad audience (instead of the borderline sneering you see now). It means selling people not just specific projects, but the whole enterprise of science– when you just mobilize for a few big-ticket items here and there, they become isolated projects that aren’t seen in the context of the rest of science, and they’re easier to discard. It means cultivating science reporters and editors in major media outlets, so you can get the word out about a broader range of science topics, and build support for more research programs than just the LHC.

There’s an opportunity out there– lots of people have remarked on the rise of Science Cafes in the last couple of years, so there is an audience for science, if we’re willing to do some work to connect with them and mobilize them. But, at the same time, there weren’t any science books deemed “notable” this year, which tells you that we’re not doing a very good job of making that connection to the broader community of educated people.

If we don’t fix that, we can look forward to eternal “soft money” status for major science funding. Unless there are a large number of people who will react with outrage when science funding gets cut, science funding will continue to be the first thing on the block when Congress wants to send a message. And we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves.