Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Cost of Science

With so many recent discussions about reducing the federal budget deficit and gradually paying down the nearly $14 trillion national debt, the government agencies that fund science appear to be easy targets. Looking for solutions to narrow this budget gap, a recent opinion column in my own local newspaper characterized NASA's budget as "a luxury we can't afford". But the numbers tell a different story -- the sum total of all non-defense discretionary spending is less than half the current budget deficit, and funding for science amounts to pocket change buried under a mountain of cash.

The 2010 federal budget totals $3.55 trillion. When you compare this to the $2.38 trillion in revenue from taxes, you get a $1.17 trillion deficit -- the gap between what the government spends, and what it collects from taxpayers. Similar deficits since the 1970's have gradually increased the U.S. government debt, like running a balance on the nation's credit card. The interest payments alone on this national debt will amount to $168 billion in 2010, enough to give every taxpayer in America a $1000 refund. To fix the problem, the government needs to cut spending and/or raise taxes to balance the budget and slowly begin paying down the national debt. It's been done before -- Bill Clinton inherited a $255 billion deficit from George H.W. Bush, and he transformed the federal budget to yield a $236 billion surplus by the time he left office. But this episode of fiscal responsibility was short-lived, and the nation has been spending hundreds of billions of dollars more than it collects ever since.

So, how does science funding compare to this enormous imbalance between taxes and spending? Suppose lawmakers decided to completely eliminate the National Science Foundation -- how much money would it save? The 2010 NSF budget is just $7 billion, about 0.6% of the current federal deficit. By contrast, the Department of Defense spends the annual budget of the NSF every few days. If lawmakers wanted to be more selective in their cuts to science, they might decide that Mathematics and Physical Sciences are "a luxury we can't afford". The MPS budget in 2010 is $1.38 billion, a potential savings of about $8 for every taxpayer. If this sort of cut seems too draconian, maybe congress would just target Astronomical Sciences with an annual budget of $250 million, the equivalent of a round-off error in the federal budget. You get the picture -- there isn't a lot of savings to be realized by forcing the nation's scientists into the unemployment lines.

What about NASA? Surely the potential savings from the space program could make a significant impact on the deficit -- right? At $18.7 billion, the annual budget of NASA is larger than the NSF, but it still represents just 1.6% of the deficit or about 10 days of military spending. NASA launches astronauts into space to repair a 20-year-old telescope that continues to make ground-breaking discoveries on a weekly basis -- it captures the imaginations of children around the world and inspires them to study science. But much of NASA's budget is actually devoted to spaceflight -- the Science Mission Directorate has an annual budget of $4.5 billion, with about $1.1 billion for Astrophysics. It's a good deal of funding compared to the NSF, but it barely registers in the context of total government spending.

Congress has some difficult decisions to make in the coming years. It's clear that as a nation we cannot continue to spend more than we are willing to pay. Returning tax rates to the levels of the 1990's is certainly part of the solution, but spending cuts will also be necessary. Our investments in science can be sustained by trimming the defense budget just a few percent. Let's hope our lawmakers arrive at the right conclusions.