Thursday, November 19, 2009

Stimulus for Science

This week the $787 billion in economic stimulus funding approved earlier this year came under intense scrutiny, as reporters and citizens examined preliminary data posted on a government website. The primary focus in the news has been whether the estimate of 640,000 "jobs saved or created" is accurate, and on a few typographical errors in the database such as non-existent congressional districts that supposedly received funding from the stimulus. I looked at the data to see how the stimulus was supporting astronomy research, and how well the funding agencies were doing at getting that money into the economy.

Although NASA's larger budget normally provides much more support for astronomy research than the National Science Foundation (NSF), the opposite was true for stimulus funding. The NSF has so far received more than $2.4 billion dollars from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act that was signed into law last February. By the end of October the agency reported spending only $50 million of these stimulus funds. Most of the allocated funds (about $2 billion) are for "Research & Related Activities", which supports individual researchers through various grants and fellowship programs. Typically, the proposals to such programs require 6-9 months for review prior to being awarded -- so maybe the low level of spending so far is not surprising. Another $254 million has been allocated to support "Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction" including the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2010. None of these funds have yet been spent.

NASA has done a better job of pumping stimulus funds into the economy, having already spent $68 million of the $572 million it has received. In fact, most of this spending (about $66 million) has been to support NASA's "Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Recovery" plan, a $212 million program that primarily supports development of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will supersede the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. NASA has actually been promised more than $1 billion in stimulus funding, so part of the delay in spending seems to arise from the slow allocation of funds by the government. The NSF has received a larger fraction of the funding it was promised under the stimulus ($2.4 billion allocated out of $3 billion total), but it has spent a much lower fraction of what it has received. It was not immediately obvious how many jobs were "saved or created" due to the funding at either agency.

Overall, the data posted to represents a valiant attempt by the Obama administration to ensure the transparency of stimulus spending. The deployment hasn't been flawless, but it's a step in the right direction in terms of trying to establish a more open government. The relatively slow spending at the agencies that support astronomy research reflects the careful consideration that must go into their funding decisions. This is certainly preferable to the alternative -- more rapid funding of projects with questionable or unknown merit. Hopefully, we can expect more of this research funding to enter the economy soon.