As scientists, we are used to asking for money. Deadlines for federal grant funding come around, and there’s a scramble to get the NSF or NASA application written, to propose the most groundbreaking science, and to formulate the most impactful public outreach and broader impacts program. But working nights and weekends, with input from collaborators across the country, we eventually get something written that we are proud of: A program that will help to answer fundamental questions, while engaging students and the public in expanding our quest for knowledge, and contributing to the rising tide of information and expertise that floats the boats of our innovation economy, ultimately helping our country to compete in a global marketplace.
And then we wait. While our colleagues, volunteering their time as panelists, and the staff at the federal agencies do their unenviable work to assess these proposals, to rank one expert’s science as more worthy than another’s, we wait for news that will determine the fate of our research programs, and ultimately our careers. Then the notification email arrives. The agency regrets that they are unable to support our proposal. We click through to read the panel’s comments, but they are overwhelmingly positive. This is great science, deserving of funding, but the agency was unable to award us funding because the competition has become so intense that less than ten percent of submitted proposals will actually get approved.
The crunch in science funding has driven productive researchers out of the field, strangled research programs, and cut off opportunities for active scientists to engage and educate the public. The approval rate for federal grants is now so low that spending a week or two to put together a proposal for a couple of years of salary and research costs is almost on its way to becoming an uneconomical proposition – sinking money and time into an endeavor with very little chance of success. And as a result, the criteria used to discriminate between successful and unsuccessful proposals become more capricious and unpredictable for the applicant, leaving some to wryly suggest that the NSF could save some effort by simply shredding, unread, 50% of the proposals that it receives with little negative impact on the excellent quality of those that are eventually funded.
It can’t get much more demoralizing, right? But then there’s an email from NSF on the impact of the sequester cuts: “the total number of new research grants will be reduced by approximately 1,000″ and “decisions … made much later … than is customary or desirable”. And yet, despite these swingeing cuts, there is bipartisan agreement on the importance of science to our nation. From President Bush’s signing of the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which laid out a roadmap to double NSF funding over 10 years, to President Obama’s reauthorization of the Act in 2011, and numerous statements by Republican and Democratic Members of Congress in support of science, the importance of basic research is recognized by many in government. Unfortunately, despite authorization for these increases in investment, actual budget allocations have failed to keep up. And the vicious sequester cuts, including the slashing of NASA’s education and outreach funding, have made things even worse.
As scientists, we have a choice. We can sit wringing our hands, bemoaning the ever increasing difficulty of funding our research. Or we can take action. If one scientist from each federally funded department in the country contacted his or her Member of Congress, the voice in support of science would be heard loud and clear. If we are willing to spend a week writing a proposal with a ten percent chance of success, why not spend an hour drafting a letter that describes the impact that the funding crunch is having? Instead of dividing up a stagnant budget into smaller and smaller portions, why not advocate for an increase in the budget itself? We need to speak louder, to speak with a unified goal, but with our individual voices, to demand action to address the uprooting of the foundations of American innovation. We’ve set up this blog to host the voices of scientists who want to be a part of this conversation. Scientists, and those who care about basic science, will you join us?