Posted by: unlikelygrad | October 23, 2014

Don’t be too quick to judge

This post is written as a response to an article I saw on social media yesterday. A friend (not a scientist) linked to the following: the top 7 wackiest examples of government spending.

Of course, everything in the article is made out to sound ludicrous. And maybe some of them are. But while I may disagree with some of their choices, an article like this is simplified to the point where you cannot understand the justification behind any of the studies. So let me explain what I see as the reasoning behind #2, “watching grass grow.”

The Department of Interior spent $10,000 to monitor the growth rate of saltmarsh grass. In other words, the government is paying people to watch grass grow. On the bright side, they have not started paying people to watch paint dry.

First of all, $10,000 is peanuts (I’ll explain why in a moment).

Second of all, speaking as a scientist who’s done environmental work, I’m guessing that this involves weekly or monthly visits to measure the grass–they aren’t actually sitting there watching the grass.

Finally, why would the Department of the Interior care about the growth rate of saltmarsh grass? Because one of the best ways to prevent damage from hurricanes etc. is through the restoration of coastal wetlands, and the more you learn about how these wetlands grow, the more effectively you can restore them. If, by spending $10,000, they save a million dollars in damage (which, considering the amount FEMA pays out for storm damage over the course of a decade, is quite a modest sum) it is a worthy investment.

* * *

So, on to the money issue. I said that $10,000 is not very much money. Why? First of all, many institutions take 50% of a scientist’s grant money to cover overhead costs–upkeep on the lab space, paying for electricity, and so on. So our poor PI (that’s “principal investigator,” the chief scientist in charge of the project) is left with $5,000 to run the study.

This amount has to cover supplies, travel costs (say, 20 miles round trip every week to the study site over 2 years), and pay for the scientist doing the monitoring. The monitoring scientist, who is probably not the PI, could very well be a grad student like me. My salary + benefits (health insurance, tuition) runs roughly $36,000/year. Suddenly, $5000 doesn’t sound like so much, right? Even 1/5 of that (for a project that runs one year) is a bit over $7000–$5000 doesn’t even begin to cover it!

Every grant submitted to the NSF and EPA (not sure about other agencies) require justification. The proposal must address the proposed benefits to society. It is not enough to want to do science or to come up with something interesting or “cool-sounding.” It has to benefit society in some small way. (Many agencies also require an outreach component, which means that part of the money is being spent on public education.)

* * *

The article concludes by saying:

While some of these waste examples seem like a drop in the bucket, cutting wasteful spending is important to build momentum to tackle even more difficult and pressing issues, like entitlement spending.

Moreover, the national debt is currently $17.9 trillion–and growing. Waste reform is just one of many steps needed in order to bring down the national debt, and ensure a prosperous future for the next generation.

Well, let’s think about this for a moment. Let’s say a person was deeply in debt. Let’s say this person lives in a McMansion with a monthly payment of $5,000 per month and leases a luxury car for $500 per month. Let’s say that this person also stops by Starbucks twice a week to pick up a coffee. Should this person start by cutting out their cappuccino? Wouldn’t it better to say, “Hey, you can get a decent car for half that amount per month” or “If you downsize your house, you could save a couple thousand per month?”

The federal budget for 2014 includes $1.235 trillion in spending. (All figures in this section are from Wikipedia.) Of that, two agencies that exclusively support science–NASA and the NSF–receive about $25 billion, or about 2%, while three that might contribute a modest to reasonable amount of their budget to science–the Department of the Interior, the EPA, and the Department of Energy–are allotted $48.3 billion, or about 4%.

By contrast, the Department of Education receives $71.2 billion–almost as much as the first five agencies mentioned put together. (Constitutionally speaking, I’m pretty sure education is supposed to be governed by the states, not the feds, but that’s neither here nor there.) The National Intelligence Program gets $48.2 billion. And the Department of Defense gets $526.6 billion.

* * *

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in having a strong military. But if we cut 20% from the defense budget, we’d still have a pretty strong military. If we put half of that back into the science budget, we could understand so much more about our earth and create science jobs. We barely understand the dynamics of the ocean, and yet we only have 24 research vessels in our fleet (6 of which aren’t big enough to go into the deep ocean). Meanwhile, the navy has 430 ships…

I think we have our priorities wrong. Defense is all well and good, but money for science can potentially improve people’s lives…and money for collaborative science, with shared projects between nations, can build bridges and promote peace in ways that military action never could.

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