Mar 012013
Just before any predictable disaster hits, it’s almost impossible to take even a medium term view.

With the sequester bearing down on us in a couple of days, identifying the immediate consequences is terrifying enough.  Just check out the Obama administration’s state-by-state list of the grim weeks ahead.

The picture derived from that tally is evil enough, as we all (or should) know by now.In broad strokes, it will slow the recovery, cut economic growth, and act as a persistent drag on ordinary folks’ attempts to make a better life — hell, to pay the rent on the first of the month.  But there is a sense, I think, that however crappy conditions may get for the weeks or months before some resolution emerges, matters will return to normal in reasonably short order.

But that’s wrong, at least when it comes to the future of science in the United States.  The federal government is by far the lead funder for basic scientific research. [PDF; see p. 5]  When the funding stream dries up, even briefly, work doesn’t just pause for a bit; instead, the blow cuts deeper, past fat, through muscle and into bone.  There’s been some coverage of this over the last week or so.  For example, in an interview conducted by Dylan Matthews, former NIH director Elias Zerhouni said:

“I think the suddenness of it and the depth of it would be a disaster for research, which is not an activity that you can turn on and off from year to year. It’s an activity that takes time. The most   impacted  are the young, new investigator scientists, who are coming into science, and will now abandon the field of science. There will be a generational gap created.

An average grant is five  years long, because science is like that. So think: That means that every one year, only 20 percent of the grants come to their end. So any one year, NIH only has 20 percent  of its money available for new grants. At NIH, about half of the grants get terminated at five years, but the rest get to be continued, as you don’t want to throw away good research. So the half of it that’s left has to go to very promising areas of science, and you have 10 percent left.

If you take 8 percent of that 10 percent, it’s going to come from new science, new people, young investigators; we are going to maim our innovation capabilities if you do these abrupt deep cuts at  NIH. It will  impact science for generations to come.”

“New science, new people, young investigators.”  That’s the rub.  But the issue involves more than the sequester itself.  Rather, for at least a large slice of the basic research community, the killing force of the current plan comes from the way it piles on to an already ailing enterprise.  Last week I contacted my colleague, Marc Kastner, a physicist, former head of the physics department, and now Dean of the School of Science at MIT — which makes him the leader of a some-hundreds of million dollars/year basic research enterprise.  The story he told me ain’t pretty.

Read more . . .

via Scientific American - Tom Levenson

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