Musings on a Modest Proposal

Published: 3:42 PM GMT on October 20, 2014

Musings on a Modest Proposal

Hope I have some readers left! Think I might be back.

Stream of consciousness here:

Over the last six weeks I have been working on three proposals, pulling all-nighters as much as somebody my age can pull all-nighters. Definitely crushed my blogging time. It got me thinking about things.

Going to start with Ebola – I fear our country’s reaction to Ebola more than I fear Ebola. We can politicize anything. One of the Ebola events of the past week was the grief given to Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health. In an interview in the Huffington Post, Collins stated, “"Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready."

The analysis of budgets is hard, and to be distinct from my many blogs about energy budgets, here I’m talking about federal budgets of money. Back in 2008 I did a blog on U.S. “climate” budgets. I’m glad I made a copy of the figure in that blog, because it’s pretty hard to find such information these days. In 2012, I got an update of that figure from as they say, some people I know, but they weren’t able to do it in constant dollars so they aren’t exactly publishable. There’s something of a recent table on the U.S. Global Change Research Program website.

The budget is dominated by NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) portion, and the bulk of that money is for the satellite missions. In a broad-brush approach, the budgets associated with “climate” were on the way down in 2008. After the start of the 2007-2008 recession, the budget took a big jump in the stimulus and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It fell strongly in 2010, but not back to 2008 levels. Since 2010 there has been some growth, but mostly in NASA to support the satellite missions. The satellite mission was suffering. This year, 2014, NASA Earth Science is making a big comeback with five scheduled launches, three of which have occurred.

A little climate science culture, the four biggest agencies with a climate mission are: NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Energy. They all have different nuances that distinguish their mission. After these four, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the largest in climate and global change. Outside of NASA, the budgets have been more volatile. The National Science Foundation has been most stable.

O.K. let’s bring this back to my proposal writing. In the past few years, I made a few decisions with more deliberation than usual. A consequence of these decisions is that I stepped back from being principal investigator (lead) on proposals, placing myself as a co-investigator. One of my motivations was that I wanted to learn the interfaces between climate science and other fields, such as public health. This has worked out OK, but not great, and, recently, I have started to write proposals again, taking more of a leadership role.

The proposal world to which I have returned seems far more fragile than ten years ago, despite on the face of it, the total numbers in the federal budget are greater now than ten years ago. It even feels more fragile than, say, 2006 and 2007, when on the face of it the total budget numbers were at their lowest. There are a lot of factors in this feeling of fragility, including that a decade ago I was inside the government at NASA, and now I am outside of the government in the sense of being at a research university posing as an academic. The scale of resources and proposals is far smaller on the outside.

What seems different? I am writing proposals for far smaller amounts of money. The success rates for proposals seem very low. The uncertainty within the government agencies is stunning. In my personal case, a proposal I wrote a year and a half ago reviewed very well, but there was no money. The proposal was put in the queue in case money became available the next fiscal year. In this case money became available, and I just received a grant. Currently, I am on a proposal in the same situation, waiting in a pile in case money becomes available. Think about the consequences of that. There is some of my salary (will return to that below), but there is all of the salary of research fellows and there is student support. With these sorts of uncertainties, well, it’s hard to plan, hard to get projects going and keep projects going, hard to make employment commitments to people, etc.

In an analysis in the Washington Post in 2013 there was a discussion of the coming crash in research and development budgets. This article does have a figure from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that has the combined budget of all the agencies. I link it here:



Figure 1: Trends in research and development (R&D) budgets by agency. USDA = U.S. Department of Agriculture, NSF = National Science Foundation, DOE = Department of Energy, NIH = National Institutes of Health, DOD = Department of Defense. ARRA Funding includes 2009 stimulus money for research.

What the 2013 analysis in the Washington Post focused on was the impact of sequestration, the mindless automatic budget cuts that became our budgetary policy. The point was that the sequestration had a disproportionate impact on the government’s discretionary budget, and research and development is a part of that discretionary budget. If we take sequestration in concert with the fixed costs for centers and infrastructure, protected programs, and relentless political attacks on the budget associated with “climate,” it’s an un-pretty world.

It’s relatively hard to find real statistics on grants and trends. The best numbers come from NSF. The NSF is unique amongst the agencies because it focuses on basic research as its mission,much of it at universities. Here is a pdf of a comprehensive summary of their Merit Review Process. A few things, in Figure 2 of the report you see the huge impact of the economic stimulus. In Figure 3 of the report you see the average grant size going up (surprised me), but in Figure 7 you see the amount of time of the investigator bought in a grant going down. If you go down in the Appendices, you see the success rates for proposals in GEO, which is Earth science, is 30%. In Appendix 6, you see that the average size of a GEO proposal goes from $148,000 to $168,000 between 2005 and 2012. There are some much larger grant opportunities for multiple investigators and multiple institutions, but they are fewer in number, and complicated.

The issue that has gotten the most attention in the press is that the success rate of proposals has gone down. Above, I quote 30% success rate for GEO in 2012, which is relatively high. In some fields the current success rates are closer to 20%. The only other agency with a high-profile Earth science mission that reports easy to find numbers is NASA, which has a slightly higher success rate in Earth science (ESD in their graphs) than NSF. NASA grants also vary across a wide range of dollar amounts.

For the grant size for NSF that I quote above, lets average it to about $150,000. What does that buy? First I want to describe the university business model a little. There are all sorts of researcher types at a university. A lucky person like myself is tenured, which means that a percentage of my salary is guaranteed. That percentage is about 75% of your salary. Many other researchers in universities have to generate all, 100%, of their salary. Tenured faculty members are expected to generate research proposals to cover their salary in the summer, support students, and generate the dollars that help keep the university going. At my university, a grant of $150,000 per year, supports, about, 1 graduate student, a month of salary, and the costs for publishing papers, buying a computer, travel to scientific meetings. That’s a pretty neat package. If, however, you start to add other researchers for, say, collaborative work, then you start to get fractions of months, fractions of students, and higher costs of administration to manage the transfer of funds to all of the collaborators. With success rates of proposals at 20 or 30%, then you write, what, 3 proposals to make 1. The time span of a proposal is shorter than the tenure of a student; hence, there is a major student-support uncertainty moment in the middle of their education.

Remember, above I said that the NSF has been the most stable of the agencies. That’s because for the most part, NSF enjoys bipartisan support. The other agencies have not enjoyed such stability. Agencies such as NASA and Department of Energy have large centers that require care and feeding. The climate programs within NOAA have suffered high volatility. The sequester and the continuing resolutions have caused high uncertainty. The net result of all of this is that, in fact, many climate scientists are working in a world where funding is unstable, unreliable, and decreasing. People are losing jobs. Students are not getting jobs. It is a situation that I see getting worse, if for no other reason because the federal discretionary budget will come under pressure due to our sustained military presence in, especially, Iraq and Syria.

O.K. What I have described here is, perhaps, consistent with what many are feeling in the economy. Raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Covering fixed costs and institutional requirements erode the money available for research. The politically caused uncertainty, either direct through budget cuts to climate programs or indirect through sequestration, has a large disruptive effect. As in business, stability is required for success of programs. Failure to invest in science has broad consequences, as suggested by Dr. Collins on development of vaccines.

I want to end with a comment that we hear that climate scientists trump up the dangers of global warming to keep their research budgets high, for personal gain. As Steve Schneider used to say, if scientists wanted to boost their budgets, then they would claim that global warming was uncertain, needed more research – not that it is a fait accompli. And to be clear, if I win a research grant, I don’t get, say, a commission. If I win a grant, I get to pay my salary, and I get to support students, I get to support research associates. A larger grant, I don’t get anymore.

Presently, my analysis is that our federal model for supporting research and development is in a spiral of decline: increased volatility in programs, lower success rates in proposals, reduction of percentage of salary obtained in a proposal. There is no doubt that the political instability in Washington extends through to the day-to-day practice of science – perhaps, disruption is the goal of our science policy makers. It is counter to what a nation needs to compete in the world, and it is counter to what is needed to address the challenges we face as a nation and individuals. I keep coming back to those Beardogs at the Watering Hole.

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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