Coming into the Democratic convention, science academia is going to be enthusiastic in its support of President Obama.  Unlike counterparts in private-sector science, academia will vote up to 85% Democratic and some of that reason has been that Democrats are more 'pro-science' than Republicans.

Obviously that isn't true, I (co)wrote a whole book itemizing how progressives who have a vocal minority among Democrats hijack their liberal and even conservative brethren. They're dangerous and their anti-science positions far outweigh the craziness on the right. A complete itemized list isn't possible in an article but we can talk about one thing; money.

Because I am not in science academia, I think money counts more than pretty words.  I appreciate that the president said he was going to lower ocean levels and whatever, but historically Republicans fund more science than Democrats do. President Obama decided to rectify that in the way of his 2009 stimulus plan. Sounds great, right?  Maybe not, for a reason I will argue but it helps to see what insiders have to say on the matter also.

One downside to an artificial stimulus plan goes well beyond long-term cost to taxpayers. The cost is substantial, I am not denying we will be paying it off for the rest of our lives, but there is also a short-term impact in a competitive field like science. If you are a PhD, you are not likely to get funded for an R01 grant right out of college. People are living longer and healthier and still producing vital results and you are competing against them.  You are likely going to do a few post-doctoral fellowships for someone who did get funding instead, while you apply for faculty jobs.

Now introduce any stimulus plan and instead of maybe 10% of projects getting funded, perhaps you have 15%.  There are two ways to look at this. It may be that 15% of all projects are really, really valuable and not getting funded was just bad luck, not being skilled at writing proposals compared to others, or any number of shadowy social issues that crop up any time you deal with government and science.

A stimulus is an event, not a budget.  So if you got funded during a stimulus and then do not when it comes time for a normal grant cycle again, your career is essentially over.  This is also the downside to grant quotas for young scientists, when that crops up on a recurring basis; they are unprepared for the real funding world and the step backward knocks them out of academia.

In February 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) , which allocated $787 billion to boost the economy.  Now, in hindsight, most of that money simply went to state and municipal unions, it was not 'boosting' the economy but instead patching up bleeding in governments that had simply hired too many people. 

Yet $10 billion of it did go to the NIH, which has a regular budget of around $31 billion, and another $11 billion went to the NSF and others.  A third of an annual budget increase in a stimulus is a big difference, obviously.  What did it accomplish? 

The NIH graciously puts up an index showing where their money went and Thomas Insel, M.D. and Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), writes occasional blog posts about his group.  A short while ago he discussed the impact of the stimulus plan

The first thing you have to know about government employees is that, on asset-liability columns, they all think they are assets.  The NIH says spending taxpayer money with the NIH leads to $2.21 per dollar in local economic growth, so it is an investment not a cost.  You smart economists out there are wondering why we don't invest all of our money in something that yields over a 100% ROI.  We can cure the budget deficit in a year if we just gave it all to the NIH. In reality, the hundreds of thousands of government employees required to redistribute taxes are not a profitable investment but we all do things for the common good that are not profitable, like police, roads and, yes, science. Why invoke those numbers when they are clearly wrong.

Well, they are not wrong, they are just massaged to looking a lot more right than they are. For the non-economists, you have to understand these are government numbers.  They use fuzzy, second-order accounting, the kind of thing that allowed the president to claim that if you did not get fired during his stimulus plan, or you got hired back in construction after a winter break, you were a job 'saved or gained'. It isn't real. Obviously NIH has a great deal of research value but, as I have criticized before, the NIH, with Health in its name, has gotten a trillion dollars and we have politicians trying to fix health care instead of having the NIH tackle Health and stop creating Manhattan Project's around diseases.  The Cold War has ended everywhere except in government science bureaucracy.  If 50,000 people pay a dollar and the money goes to 125 PIs who spend it on another 500 employees and some day on average, it will lead to something that makes money or saves lives, that is not actually a return of $2.21. 50,000 people still lost a dollar.

The NIMH got $366 million in stimulus spending and Director Insel notes that this money went to support the first whole genome sequencing in autism, as well as therapeutic trials, new models of job training, and services research.

So were these unworthy projects that would have fallen outside the ordinary funding window?  No, it doesn't work that way. Autism is big news in society and so the NIMH is going to pursue every project it can, including fuzzy 'services research'.  It means he is highlighting that because that is what politicians do, and if you think you get to be the Director of the NIMH or any government group without being a politician, you are just silly. 

He also makes us realize that the NIMH is in some kind of science bubble, writing "we now realize that “genetic” does not mean “inherited”".  I'm not a government employee or a government-funded researcher or even a biologist and I knew that, how does an MD running a billion dollar government science enterprise not know that until he needed to give credit to his bosses' administration for spending money?

He notes that data for "100,000 members of Kaiser Permanente of Northern California who had been genotyped and followed for changes in telomere length as a sign of stress and aging" were analyzed.  One of the reasons the National Science Foundation gets in so much funding hot water is because they finance 'studies' of private sector businesses, like why people play "Farmville" - obviously the company behind Farmville knows full well why people play it so why is the government paying people to look at data from that or the patients of an HMO? The HMO should be doing it, they are in the health business.

He notes other fine projects in neuropsychology as well but the question remains unanswered; would those have been funded anyway? The answer is yes. Anything worth mentioning in a post about how awesome it is to have taxpayer financing was going to get funded anyway or something is really, really wrong with the system.

Instead, what got funded were things that might not have gotten funded in an ordinary 'we have to spend it or lose it' climate. That's not good for researchers and it isn't good for science and society because it violates the idea of the science meritocracy and it invariably leads to wasteful spending which results in a backlash.

As I said in the beginning, I am not in the science business, the corporate- or the government-controlled kind. Are there life scientists out there who can show that the stimulus really stimulated their discovery rate?  Was anyone crazy enough to hire more people knowing they would have to fire them in a year?  And what makes the biggest difference in how you vote, the party that spends the most or the one that matches your politics outside science?