In his state of the union address, President Obama said that
“Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.)” 
There are fudge phrases in here, like “prepared to freeze” – leaving a little wiggle room for tough choices. But again, as always, science (discretionary spending in the federal budget) faces a climate where few people champion its cause in Congress and, regardless of the party in power, is likely on deck for the freezer. This can happen for several reasons.
The first is the stimulus bill. Scientific agencies received one-time injections of cash that they are still pushing out the door (and likely will be until 2011). But stimulus spending is not a long-term investment in anything. Stimulus spending gets things moving, but it’s adrenaline into a stopped heart; you do it once to get the heart pumping, then you find the nearest hospital and start long-term rehabilitation. The danger is that the Congress and the President will see the stimulus spending on science as the only success they needed score in science.
Science policy and support in this country was saved, but not healed, by the stimulus bill. Since the President only talked about energy research in his address,
Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history -– (applause) — an investment that could lead to the world’s cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched. And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year’s investments in clean energy -– in the North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries; or in the California business that will put a thousand people to work making solar panels.
but failed to highlight the other areas of science that can now hire. The Department of Energy alone just awarded about 100 Early Career Awards, with enough money in each of those over a five year period that each grant could support at least one new Ph.D. researcher who otherwise might have left the field or the country (or both). Congress and the President decry the loss of a high-tech workforce, but seem to neglect to mention when such jobs are created or saved outside of some factory. And while it’s nice that a boutique area like energy research gets mention, the risk is that you forget to talk about supporting general areas like chemistry, biology, math, physics, computing. Forgetting the base puts at risk the ability to invest in the next boutique project.
Independent of the stimulus bill, the profile for science funding has still been stale or declining for at least a decade. It’s easy to become complacent and think that science can manage on such budgets, since it’s still going in the U.S. But alive does not mean living, and breathing does not mean thriving. Keeping science alive, and giving it the means to live, are two completely different things. The Congress needs to understand this, and the President needs to be reminded of this.
None of this is to say that science, for sure, will face the freezer this year. But if we don’t hold the line, and fight to force the line outward so that we gain more ground, we will all have to go elsewhere to pursue our research. Science knows no borders – decades of international cooperation has demonstrated that. The flip-side is that science will go where the money is plentiful, where the path of least resistance between an idea and a lab is possible. Science will go where students are eager to learn and contribute. Patriotism only lasts so long in the heart of the scientist, because understanding nature is more important than clinging to a flag.
If the President was serious when he said,
How long should America put its future on hold? (Applause.) You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations — they’re not standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science.
then I had better see science agencies protected from another long stint in the freezer when the President’s proposed budget appears this week. Where will the emphasis be in this budget proposal, and will it plunge us further from leadership or give us the framework to define our success on our own terms?