As mentioned here earlier, the last Congress decided to not pass most new FY 2007 spending bills before leaving town, putting these off until the new Congress convenes, and running the government on a continuing resolution, mostly at last year’s spending levels. There is speculation that the new Congress may decide to not even try to put together and pass FY 2007 spending bills (the fiscal year started Oct. 1), instead just funding things by a continuing resolution for the rest of the year, mostly at FY 2006 levels. The Fermilab director Pier Oddone has issued a statement about the implications of having to run Fermilab at the FY 2006 funding level for the rest of the year. These would be dire, including having to take such measures as completely shutting down the lab and furloughing its employees for a month.
This would be extremely bad news for Fermilab, coming at a time when they have been having great success with getting the Tevatron to run at ever greater luminosity. The machine has just set new records for weekly luminosity, monthly luminosity, and initial luminosity (you can follow their progress here). While everyone is concentrating on the LHC, the Tevatron remains the only machine in the world running at the high-energy frontier, and the most likely source of any surprising new information about beyond standard model physics during the next couple of years. It would be a great shame if budget problems were to have a negative impact on this.
I don’t have any information about what the impact of these budget problems might be on particle theory or on mathematics. For mathematics, the impact may not be so great since, after several years of sizable budget increases at the NSF, the FY 2007 budget request for mathematics at the NSF contained only a 3.2 percent increase.
There’s a quite interesting interview in the latest (February) issue of the Notices of the AMS with William Rundell. Rundell was the director of the mathematics part of the NSF until last summer. He describes how during his tenure the NSF emphasized “single-researcher” or “PI” grants, saying that:
If you take any block of time from NSF’s beginnings to now and you ask, what were the best years for the DMS single-investigator grants or for senior researcher increases?, the answer is the period of 2001 through 2005.
Rundell notes that during this time the number of grants went up by only a small amount, maybe 10 percent, but that the value of each grant “went up enormously”. Before 2001, people were being given at most one month of “summer support”, now junior people get two months, and senior people often a month and a half or two months. While inflation and average university raises have been around 2 to 3 percent, the academic star system has had stars (the people most likely to be getting these grants) receiving 6 to 7 percent raises, 10 percent promotion raises, and big hikes in salary when they move. So, the bottom line is that a lot more money has been going to a small segment of the mathematics research community.
The interviewer states that “Most mathematicians believe PI grants are the most important part of the DMS”, but I wonder whether that is really true. Rundell also explains that the current system leaves most mathematicians with not much motivation to lobby for an increased NSF budget, especially if most of the increase is going to go to a small number of well-paid people:
I think it is probably true that the mathematicians who get the money aren’t pulling their weight for justifying us to get more. And on the other hand, those people who are disenfranchised have no incentive to do that.
Personally I’ve never understood the logic of devoting such a large part of the NSF research budget in math or theoretical physics to increasing the salary of the best paid people in the field, although I hear that once one achieves such a status the reasons become much clearer. Besides the “summer salary” though, these grants do fund many things that are important for the health of university math departments, especially supporting graduate students. Rundell claims that over this same period the NSF has doubled its support for graduate students. This is probably reflected in the data contained in another article in the new Notices, an annual survey of new doctoral recipients. This survey finds the number of Ph.D.s awarded last year in mathematics to be 1245, the highest number ever recorded. Four years ago this number was at a local minimum, with 948 mathematics Ph.Ds awarded.
Also supposedly suffering from funding problems is the high energy theoretical physics group at Harvard, where, according to one of its faculty members, because of feminism the university has been unable to afford competent computer support. As a result the group has recently had to shut down its web server (schwinger.physics.harvard.edu), and evidently has had several of its machines broken into, with no administrator around to deal with this. There’s a huge on-going problem with university computer systems which seems to be the same thing that happened at Harvard. Many groups of hackers have broken into a large number of insufficiently well-protected university unix systems, often installing trojanned versions of the SSH software. The trojanned SSH client programs then gather people’s usernames and passwords as they are typed in when SSH is used to login to another system. These are used to break in to yet other systems. Since SSH is the fundamental tool used to manage logins between different machines at most universities, this is a very difficult problem to deal with.
One reason I’ve mentioned this is to warn people to be very careful about using SSH, especially using it to login from a system not at your home university, since the SSH program on the machine you are using may be trojaned. Better to use your own laptop, with its own SSH software. I’d like to discourage posting of comments about computer security here, since most such comments just spread misinformation of one kind of another, just making problems worse. There are many other places on the internet to get information about and discuss these issues.
Update: There’s more about the 2007 NSF budget here.
Update: Today’s NY Times has an article here. It seems that many other labs, including RHIC and Jefferson Lab, are facing similar problems.