Thursday, August 29, 2013

Killing science, in pictures

A consortium of professional science societies surveyed over 3700 practicing scientists this summer about the effect of funding declines and the sequester on science and discovery. (I was one of them.)  Their report, Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity, makes for sobering reading.

First, the loss of funding is certainly exacerbated by the sequester, but has been on-going.  If you look at the graph below, you can see the actual dollars were flatlined until about 2010 and then declined precipitously.  But if you look at "constant 2002" dollars, you can see that the purchasing power has been declining since 2004.  Flat budgets don't keep up with the BRDPI ("BirdPie"), which is the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index. Basically, salaries go up and the cost of research goes up, even if the grant dollars do not. That means fewer people and less science even if the dollars are flat.

Next, let's look at the consequences of that funding loss on actual practicing scientists.  Loss of funding translates to loss of jobs.  Once a project loses staff, it is effectively killed;  you can't pull it out of the freezer and start it up when all the expertise has left.  It's wasteful, it destroys science, it destroys careers.  And it wastes the considerable contribution you, the taxpayer, has made to the previous science.

 Let's be clear, we aren't talking about funding marginal science.   We're talking about work that has passed peer review, and is recommended for funding, but won't get it.

And of course, there's this:

Which reflects the next chart.  yes, the US is alone in major countries in not just flat-lining its investment in science, but reducing it.  While China, Brazil, etc are increasing their investment, and increasing their output.  So we are at risk not only for losing a generation of scientists, but giving up global leadership to other countries.  And once it's gone, it won't come back.

Some conclusions from the report and its press release: 
  • Private investment in academic research has been feeble. Only 2 percent of survey respondents have been able to find private funds to make up for those lost from federal grants.
  • More than two thirds of survey respondents do not have the funds to expand their research operations, postponing important scientific advances in all fields.
  • Research jobs have been lost. Nearly half of survey respondents have laid off researchers and 55 percent have a colleague who has lost his/her job.
  • An overwhelming majority of scientists in all fields believes the U.S. has lost its position as the global leader in scientific research.
Good coverage of the report from the Huffington Post, which has been following this story in detail.

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