ShovelReady Science

Of all the problems that could beset a federal bureaucrat, deciding how to shovel billions of unexpected dollars out the door in record time has got to be one of the least common and most enjoyable. But that’s the challenge now facing heads of scientific agencies that hit the jackpot in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus package, which President Barack Obama signed into law on 17 February. To use what is currently the hottest Beltway buzz phrase, plans for offloading the loot are not yet shovel-ready. But how the spending gets done, and what comes next, will affect the careers of many scientists.

Creating or saving jobs is, of course, the core purpose of the stimulus. Constructed by the Democratic-controlled Congress at warp speed, the bill aims to dispense an unprecedented three-quarters of a trillion dollars on immediate, short-term spending. The goal is to save as many as 3 million Americans from unemployment and shock a shattered economy back toward growth.

So the key question is whether the stimulus money for science represents a one-time splurge–as big-government critics hope–or a down payment on larger future budgets–as many scientists and policymakers might wish.

Some 70,000 of those rescued Americans will be helped by the $10 billion awarded at the last minute to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to Research!America, a lobbying group supported by universities, hospitals, and others to do heavy-duty lobbying for biomedical funding. Thousands more jobs will result, presumably, from the $3 billion dished out to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and from the $1.5 billion given to the Department of Energy. All told, science gets a $21.5 billion share of the bounty. The number of science jobs that will be created or saved is not yet clear, because part of the money will go to facilities and equipment. Nor can anyone say yet who will get the jobs or how long they will last.

Working around the clock

Specter’s willingness to provide one of the three Republican votes needed for the stimulus to squeak through to filibuster-proof passage has made him, for now, one of the most powerful people in the Senate. He is credited with insisting on the huge NIH windfall–equivalent to one-third of the regular annual NIH appropriation–despite pressure from the House of Representatives for a smaller amount. A long-standing and fervent supporter of biomedical research–and a veteran of recurrent cancer, open heart surgery, and a mistaken diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease–Specter engineered, with Senator Tom Harkin (D–IA), the original 1998 to 2003 doubling of NIH funding.

NIH has “been working around the clock” to figure out how to “make the most effective, transparent, and immediate use of these extraordinary resources,: said acting director Raynard Kington in a late-February statement. One approach will be to fund grant proposals that NIH officials already have in hand, with an emphasis on those applicants who can spend the money fast. “NIH will be using multiple approaches, and the first will provide immediate infusion by choosing among already reviewed, highly meritorious R01 applications that have a reasonable expectation of making progress in 2 years. … NIH will also be targeting research through supplements and a program of Challenge Grants,” he added.

NSF, whose stimulus windfall equals about half the agency’s annual appropriation, will also direct much of it to approved but as-yet-unfunded grants, sources say. NSF, however, seems to be considering investing some of its stimulus money in longer-term projects.

Jobs for the future?

NSF’s emerging plans aside, the stimulus package awards one-time bonanzas that must be spent in 2 years. Much of the money awarded via grants and supplements will support graduate students, postdocs, and technicians. If science agencies’ funding returns to pre-stimulus levels or something close, then what happens to all those postdocs, technicians, and students hired for the interim? What happens to the lab chiefs who hired them? The science labor market would almost certainly repeat the disastrous crash that followed the end of the doubling.

If funding remains flush, however, the new jobs could stick around. So the key question is whether the stimulus money for science represents a one-time splurge–as big-government critics hope–or a down payment on larger future budgets–as many scientists and policymakers might wish.

At least a few people think a lasting boost in the regular appropriations for some science agencies is a real possibility, according to a well-informed Washington observer we’ll call Polly C. Wonk. “There is a lot of talk now about what can be done to avoid a boom and bust,” says Wonk, who sees “a good chance that this will reset the baseline” for NIH’s annual appropriation. Stacie Propst, Research!America’s vice president for science policy and outreach, also believes that President Obama’s budget proposals will reset priorities in favor of scientific research. Because the Administration believes that new treatments for key diseases can cut health care costs, “research weaves itself throughout the health care system,” she says.

Much appears to depend on Specter, who retains his long-standing devotion to NIH and who, according to The New York Times, has called $40 billion, rather than the current $30 billion–the new starting point for negotiations on NIH annual appropriations–the new baseline. But, Wonk notes, NIH’s fate will depend on what money is available in the coming months and years, which depends in turn “on how things go in the world in terms of war and peace, job loss, banks, [and] this housing mess.”

The outlook for a large increase in basic science appropriations looks less hopeful to another knowledgeable Washington hand, this one with a real name: Dave Moore, senior director for government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges. Moore says, “I think that there are some people talking about that, but I have received no indication” that it will really emerge from the contentious congressional negotiations that actually shape appropriations, he says. “The 2009 and 2010 appropriations will tell the tale.”

At press time, the 2009 appropriations were being debated, and an outline of the president’s 2010 request to Congress had been released. Yet the situation remains fluid and murky. One indicator: The president’s 2010 request for NSF is generous but still $2.5 billion below what the agency will get in 2009 with the stimulus added in.

The pyramid persists

Whatever happens to appropriations, it’s clear that nothing in the stimulus will fix the basic problem with the scientific job market: the pyramid of self-replicating lab chiefs constantly producing young scientists unable to start their own careers. Specter and his colleagues appear far more concerned with curing diseases than they are with improving the prospects of young scientists. The major impediment to young researchers finding good, long-term jobs is, of course, the perennial lack of faculty positions. The currently disastrous financial state of many colleges and universities makes that even worse than usual, with hiring freezes or cancellations of advertised openings. Instead of hiring fresh bodies, one source tells Science Careers, universities and medical schools are poaching new, funded ones from other campuses.

The stimulus package may improve this situation by providing $100 billion for education. That money includes $53.6 billion that will go directly to the states, some of it for saving college and university jobs. Another $17 billion will give hard-pressed students additional help paying tuition. And overhead from extra grants will bolster institutions’ ability to meet their payrolls. These funds may head off threatened financial calamity on some campuses, but nothing anywhere on the horizon portends improvement in the long-standing, systemic shortage of faculty jobs.

One relatively tiny and little-noticed stimulus provision actually does promise real, long-term career opportunities for some young scientists: a minuscule $15 million tucked into NSF science education funding to support a new program fostering Professional Science Master’s degree curricula. Graduates of the best of those programs typically have no trouble finding jobs.

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