It seems to be part of the job description of anyone in the sciences to periodically complain that scientific research funding is insufficient, with the situation going from bad to worse. For some recent examples, see this from Bruce Alberts, the Editor-in-Chief of Science, and this endorsement from Professor Matt Strassler.
In the contrarian spirit of this blog, I want to suggest that the situation is actually quite a bit more complicated, and the story of research funding is not completely a one-sided one of the oppression and impoverishment of scientists. Also in the spirit of this blog, I want to avoid topics I don’t know much about, which in this case includes the vast majority of scientific research and how it is funded, especially outside the US. The biggest component of R&D funding in the US is the military, and I have no idea what this money is going towards and whether it is being well-spent. I’ve also heard that there are increasingly vast sums being spent by the US on classified research, not necessarily accounted for and showing up in obvious places in the budget, but I have not idea whether this is even true or what the size of this is. While ignorant about what military R&D spending is going to, I confess to a general prejudice that it seems to me to be huge and if I knew more I’d probably be strongly in favor of there being less of it.
The next biggest component of R&D spending is biomedical, and again, I’m woefully ignorant. Unlike spending money to find better ways to kill people, biomedical research is inherently something worthwhile, so more of it undoubtedly is better. But whether it is now being spent well, or whether taking away from some other priority to spend more in this area would be a good idea, I haven’t a clue.
On overall US federal spending levels, Alberts compares a level of .87% of GDP in 2013 to a level of 1.25% of GDP in 1985. He’s getting his data from here, but those numbers do tell a more complicated story. Measured in constant (2012) dollars, non-defense R&D/year went from $32 billion in 1985 to a maximum of $67 billion in 2004, and has been relatively flat since then, with $64 billion projected for 2013. Defense R&D went from $65 billion in 1984 to a maximum of $90.5 billion in 2008, has dropped significantly in recent years to $76 billion for 2013. Another set of overall numbers from the same source are for the NSF budget, which went from $4.6 billion in 1998 to $7.25 billion in 2013.
For a while on this blog I used to try and keep track of the US budget situation and periodically report on it, at least the numbers I could find and understand for math and physics. The most important thing to say about the situation of recent years is that the US federal budget process has completely broken down. Budgets have gone from being passed late to never, with government spending now allocated by some baffling system of continuing resolutions and last-minute “cliffs”. There appears to be nothing anymore like a sensible process for making future plans and sticking to them. Those responsible for managing research facilities are not only in the dark about how much money they’ll have to spend over the next few years but sometimes don’t know how much they’ll have to spend next month or next week. No matter what you think spending priorities should be, trying to run organizations this way is completely nuts and a disgrace to the country.
Getting close to fields I do know something about, here are some other numbers (also 2012 dollars): NSF yearly spending on math and physical sciences has gone from $924 million in 1998 to $1,323 million in 2013. DOE Office of Science has gone from $3.3 billion in 1997 (including $895 million for HEP) to $4.5 billion in 2013 (including $764 million for HEP).
Theoretical physics is very much small potatoes on the scale of science funding in general. For FY2012 the DOE spent $67 million on theoretical and computational physics, the NSF $13.6 million (+6 million for Physics Frontier Centers), up from $11.7 million (+6.3 for Physics Frontier Centers) in FY2008 (real, not inflation adjusted dollars). Increasingly, large amounts of funding are coming from the private sector. The Simons Foundation spent $40 million on grants for math and physics in 2011. The Perimeter Institute has gotten $150 million or so from Mike Lazaridis over the years, and the Templeton Foundation has recently provided $2 million to Perimeter, after $8 million to FQXi, and millions more in other grants such as $2 million for the philosophy of cosmology. Yuri Milner has in the past few months handed out about $37 million in checks to physicists, with one goal that of supporting their research.
The overall pattern seems to be that science in general has not been doing that badly, although HEP funding in the US has been cut significantly, as the US lost leadership in HEP to CERN with the LHC becoming the focus of attention. US experimental HEP faces huge challenges in the future, but they have more to do with the SSC debacle of 20 years ago and the lack of a compelling technological way forward to higher energies than with general federal science budget cutting. Funding for theory from conventional government sources has been fairly flat, with new sources of private funding starting to have a major impact.
As for the work conditions of US academics, Matt sees the situation as:
Whereas before the year 2000 it was easy for U.S. universities to attract the best in the world to teach and do research at their institutions, and to train the next generation of American scientists, the brain drain since that time has been awful.
On the other hand, my own experience at Columbia (a wealthy private institution) and in mathematics has been that the post-2000 period has been one where the US in general and Columbia in particular have done very well in competing for talent. While the middle class in the US has been in decline, top-flight US academics have seen significant salary increases. The AMS compiles yearly numbers for salaries (see here), which show the mean academic-year salary for a mathematics full-professor to be $127,674 at large public research universities, $148,074 at large private research universities. Back in 1999 the numbers were $85,571 (public) and $95,977 (private). Comparing to median US incomes, the ratio has increased from 4.26 to 4.73 during this time in the public university case, 4.77 to 5.49 in the private university case. At the top of the profession, average salaries for full professors at Harvard (in all fields) were $122,100 in 1998-9 (6.07 times US median), $198,400 in 2011-12 (7.36 times US median). The general pattern is that of the rest of US society, with the rich getting richer, and staying very much competitive for talent with the rest of the world.
As usual, informed and on-topic comments are welcome. If you just want to rant though about the evils of government spending, or go on about how in a just society scientists would get lots more money, please do it somewhere else.