Monday, November 27, 2006


So I mentioned a few posts back a promise that was made in the '90s to double the federal funding for fundamental scientific research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) was first. The number and sizes of NIH grants jumped, and research boomed. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was supposed to be next. Unfortunately congress decided that decrying and impeaching one president for getting a blowjob, and then hopping in bed with another to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and large investors and to wage a war against a country that had not attacked us were more important than funding science (or providing troops with armor, or taking care of wounded veterans or...).

Since the NIH windfall a large number of researchers have applied for funding. At first it was a party that everyone was invited to. A good scientist with a good idea could get themselves a good grant. Anyone who could modify their research or phrase it in a way that would imply a health related aspect did. But that switching has made things tighter. Many (most) of these research switchers came from chemistry. Biologists and Medical researchers were already primarily funded by NIH, and physics researchers can't really retask too easily, but chemists, being a mixture from more pure physical to more pure biology, got money from both. There were a few problems that resulted. First is that bio and med people started having to compete with more chemists for funding (which did not keep doubling). This has led to some researchers having a harder time getting funding, keeping students, getting tenure, etc. The number of chemists has actually grown quickly in that time because many chemistry departments have expanded as a result of the increase in the NIH budget, and they have looked for more bio-leaning chemists (even when looking for analytical/organic/inorganic positions).

Then there was the fellowships issue. NSF used to provide post doctoral fellowships for chemists. Now they do not (they still provide graduate chem fellowships). Now any chemistry post doc who wants a fellowship must either make him/her self a health researcher or a materials scientist. Those who are neither get stuck in a middle ground where they try to be one or the other or both, but can not.

Now, we've just about swung into a (distorted) equilibrium again. Grants are hard to come by for everyone, and more fellowship applicants have not gotten their money (cutoff scores have dropped). However, and this is important, fundamental research is very bio-heavy right now, and that is not really good.

Health research is something that always gets lots of public support. It also gets lots of private funding from various non-profits and corporations. Fundamental, physical science gets less so. Not that people think it is unimportant or that there is no private funding (lots of tech companies invest heavily in their own as well as others' research). Both physics-leaning and bio-leaning research is important, and to push on one side only will short change the other. There are some amazing possibilities coming out of NIH funded research, but there is so much that is not understood on a basic level that requires better understanding of the physical nature of the various molecules and interactions. Moreover, certain research, like energy, lies almost entirely outside the realm of NIH funding, especially since the fundamental studies that lead to improvements are seldom packaged as "energy" research (electrochem, spectroscopy, materials, ...).

I personally think that NSF should have had its budget increase first, because the NIH one would have been easier to push through amid political bickering. I also think that, within the next five years the NSF will get its due and I will (hopefully) already be in the door, making it easier for me to go bigger upon renewal.

1 comment:

Michael L. Heien said...

RIght on brother. Preach it.