7 October 2015

Science on a budget

Posted by Jessica Ball

closed-bOne thing that’s been taking up an inordinate amount of my time lately is the suspense about whether I’ll be allowed to do my job (aka the Congressional budget process). As a postdoc on a limited-term position at the USGS, I lose valuable time if the government shuts down, and I don’t get it back. The same is true of any employee, but it’s especially rough on the ones who are working on fixed-duration projects or term hires. It’s nice that we didn’t shut down last week, but with the next budget deadline set, very conveniently, right before AGU, life may get complicated and stressful again real quick. (Also, it’s really going to stink if no government scientists can attend the meeting – that’s a lot of lost opportunities to collaborate, keep informed on the latest research in our field, etc. And our agencies will already have spent the money for our registrations and travel. That’s a huge waste just financially!)

Historically, Congress isn’t very good about passing budgets on time. The Presidential budget request comes out in February each year and ideally the appropriations committees have things worked out and ready to vote on by the time the end of the fiscal year rolls around in October, but as we all know, that often doesn’t happen and we end up with continuing resolutions that only last for a couple of months – and lock everyone into the previous year’s salary. It sometimes takes multiple CRs before anything resembling a budget gets passed, and that can delay well into the next fiscal year, and by then it’s time to start writing the budget for the next year. It’s a nasty negotiating process, especially when it gets derailed over political issues.

The upshot for agencies that do or fund research is that they get stuck operating on budgets that may not even account for increases in inflation, assuming a shutdown doesn’t happen (which is even more disruptive). This is a terrible way to do science, because science doesn’t happen in one-year chunks, as anyone who’s ever gotten a PhD can tell you. It often takes multiple years and sometimes even decades to do a research project, whether it’s lab-based or takes you to remote-field areas for mapping or sampling. Permits for field work take time; sample analysis takes time; and publications especially take time. If you’re an early-career researcher like me who hasn’t done many of these things before, they take even more time. And boy, knowing that you might not be allowed to work on them for an indeterminate amount of time is a great way to wear on your nerves.

But it’s not just an individual problem. On a one-year budget – or even a two-year budget, which we occasionally get – it’s hard to plan ahead. Funding agencies have a hard time setting aside money for long-term projects, government research groups can’t hire people on permanently and get stuck with endless strings of term positions, and it’s impossible to come up with multi-year plans for how they can operate most efficiently and effectively. In contrast, other parts of the world have wonderful things like the EU’s Horizon 2020 budget, which lasts for seven years. Or some reauthorization bills for the America COMPETES Act, which would set steadily increasing funding levels for the NSF and NIST for the next five years. (Granted, authorizations don’t necessarily get followed by appropriations committees, but they usually get used as guidelines).

These kinds of budgets account for inflation and recognize the value of basic research, which doesn’t necessarily pay off until years later. Good science takes time – time to build a solid foundation, time to test methods and develop best practices, and time for peer-review and evaluation. If we want scientists to do work they are proud of and can be accountable for, leaving us at the mercy of a governing body that doesn’t seem to understand the full impacts of its failure to pass a budget is not the way to go. So a multi-year budget – even just a multi-year science budget – would be fantastic.

Realistically, though, all I want for Christmas is the assurance that I can go to work and do the job I was hired for. I want to work, not just because I like to do things like pay rent and eat, but because I want to get something useful for me and other taxpayers out of my job. Facing the possibility of having to flat-out abandon my research, possibly for weeks –  legally I wouldn’t even be able to answer email – in addition to missing an important conference that happens to be the best networking opportunity of my year, is just flat-out depressing.

TLDR? Congresspeople, please do one of the jobs you were elected to do so I can do the job was hired to do.

Now I’ve got to go back to pressurizing as many simulated volcanoes as I can before December rolls around…