Science and politics

This post points out how McCain’s apparently disdain for science funding is extremely worrying. In the last two debates (not to mention stump speeches) he has used at least two different examples of federal science funding as jokes about irresponsible spending (har har), and as the WP article shows, he has enjoyed mocking science funding throughout his career. And I can see how he objects to funding science through bill add-ons, rather than through “proper” channels like NSF. But NSF barely funds anything these days, it seems, and what they fund they fund in part. Depending on your institution and what kind of matching funds you can get, it’s sometimes just not enough. The bear project was with USGS, anyway, and they have basically NO money of their own. They can barely afford to pay salaries to employees and rely heavily on unpaid volunteers… but that’s a topic for another day.

Look, science research is expensive. There’s no getting around that. Most proposals include some or all of the researchers’ salaries, often funding for students and maybe postdocs (which is a lot more than just tuition and stipends because of the level of overhead for most institutions), and then the money that actually buys supplies, pays for travel, and pays for analyses (keeping the machines running, the supplies used in analysis, etc.). If your field area is at sea, ship time is incredibly expensive, because the research money has to pay for the time of the entire ship. That’s why most scientific cruises have a whole bunch of projects going at the same time, because the scientists team up to get the work done. But it’s still a lot of money to fund, and generally that funding comes from the federal government (paying for a ship means not just expenses for the ship and instrumentation itself, but salaries and benefits for the ship’s crew as well, and these days health insurance costs have made that exhorbitant).

It not just gets my hackles up when McCain makes jokes about how useless or silly science spending is. In a situation where scientific projects continue to be generally underfunded, where a proposal with two “Excellent” reviews and two “Very Goods” can’t get funded anymore, there’s really no place for arguing that we should fund our science LESS.

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