8 Ways to Improve the Academic System for Science and Scientists

I’ve enjoyed most of my time working in academic science in the U.S. and Germany as a graduate student, a postdoctoral researcher, a research scientist and a lecturer. I’ve benefited from supportive mentors, talented colleagues and wonderful friends. I think I’ve accomplished a lot in terms of research, teaching, political advocacy and public outreach. Based on my experience and on anecdotal evidence, the system works well in some ways but is flawed in many others, especially involve the job market and career advancement.

Reflecting on the past fifteen years, here are my current thoughts on problems with the system and ways it could be improved, with a focus on the U.S. and on the physical sciences, though the social sciences and life sciences face similar problems.

1. Let’s be honest: the academic job market is horrible. It was already pretty bad before the recession, and it is worse now. Many scientists move from institution to institution, working on many postdocs, fellowships, and other short-term jobs while seeking permanent positions or more secure funding, but these turn out to be increasingly elusive and competitive. (I worked at three positions over nine years since earning my Ph.D.) I’ve seen some tenure-track faculty positions receive well over 400 applications—I don’t envy the hiring committees there—and I’ve seen some grant proposal success rates drop well below 10%.

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D's are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D’s are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

This system causes people a lot of stress; from a societal perspective, in this situation, how well can people work under such pressure and job insecurity, and how much can they accomplish when they must perennially focus on job applications and grant proposals rather than on the things that drew them to their profession? If the scientific community wants to attract the best scientists, then shouldn’t we strive to make their jobs more desirable than they are now, with better pay and security? As Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote in the Pacific Standard, “unless the nation stops…’burning its intellectual capital’ by heedlessly using talented young people as cheap labor, the possibility of drawing the best of them back into careers as scientists will become increasingly remote.” In much the same way, the inadequate job prospects of adjunct faculty renders the possibility of drawing the best teachers and retaining them similarly small.

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

People have been diagnosing these problems for years, but no clear solutions have emerged. In my opinion, the job market situation could be gradually ameliorated if many institutions simultaneously sought to improve it. In particular, I think scientists should have longer-term postdoctoral positions, such as five years rather than one, two or three. I also think faculty should hire fewer graduate students, such as one or two at a time rather than, say, five of them, regardless of how much funding they happen to have at the time.

I also think that colleges, universities, and national labs should allocate funding for more staff positions, though of course that funding has to come from somewhere, and tuition and student debt are already too high. On the other hand, some people argue that university administrations have ballooned too much over the past few decades; others argue that some universities spend too much money on their sports programs. In addition, federal funding for “basic research” (as opposed to applied research) in science should be increased, as such grants often supplement university funding.

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for "sequestration." (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for “sequestration.” (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

2. We can considerably improve the graduate student experience as well. Many university departments and professional societies now give more information about academic career prospects to students than before, and it should be their official policy to do so. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to explore as many of their interests as possible, not just those focused on their narrow field of research. If they want to learn to teach well, or learn about computer programming, software, statistics, policy-making, or the history or philosophy or sociology of their science, or if they want to investigate interdisciplinary connections, or if they want to develop other skills, they should have the time and space to do that. Universities have many excellent resources, and students should have the opportunity to utilize them.

We know that only a fraction of graduate students will continue in academia, and the best scientists will be well-rounded and have a wide range of experience; if they move on to something else, they should be prepared and have the tools and expertise they need.

3. The scientific community can take this an important step further by acknowledging the many roles and variety of activities scientists engage in in addition to research: teaching courses, participating in outreach programs, advancing efforts to improve diversity, becoming involved in political advocacy, developing software and instrumentation that don’t necessarily result in publications, etc. Many scientists agree that we do not sufficiently value these kinds of activities even though they are necessary for the vitality and sustainability of the scientific enterprise itself. For example, in a new paper submitted to the Communicating Astronomy with the Public journal, the authors find that many astronomers think a larger fraction of their grant-funded work (up to 10%) should be allocated to education and public outreach (EPO). EPO are included among the “broader impacts” of National Science Foundation grants, but much more can be done in this regard. All of these activities should be explicitly recognized by the relevant federal agencies during the evaluation of grant proposals and by departmental hiring committees when assessing candidates for jobs and promotions.

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Therefore, a corollary follows: if the community appreciates a wider scope of activities as important components of a scientist’s job, then it is not necessary to relentlessly pursue published research papers all of the time. Perhaps this could alleviate the “publish or perish” problem, in which some scientists rush the publication of insufficiently vetted results or make provocative claims that go far beyond what their analysis actually shows. That is, endeavoring for a more open-minded view of scientists’ work could improve the quality and reliability of scientific research.

In practice, how would this be done? Scientists could organize more conferences and meetings specifically devoted to education research, outreach programs, policy developments, etc., and the proceedings should be published online. Another way a scientist’s peers could be aware of the wider scope of her non-research work would be to have different levels of publication involving them, from informal social media and blog posts to possibly peer-reviewed statements and articles that could be posted on online archives or wiki pages. For example, if she participated in an outreach project with local high school students or in Congressional visit days, she could speak or write about the experience and about what worked well with the program and then publish that presentation or statement.

Furthermore, since research projects can take years and many grueling steps to complete, often by graduate students toiling away in their offices and labs, why not reduce the pressure and recognize the interim work at intermediate stages? Some people are considering publishing a wider scope of research-related work, even including the initial idea phase. A new open-access journal, Research Ideas and Outcomes, aims to do just that. I’m not sure whether it will work, but it’s worth trying, and I hope that scientists will be honorable and cooperative and avoid scooping each other’s ideas.

On that note, as some of you know, I will make it official that I am leaving academic science. (In my next post, I will write about what I am shifting my career toward.) As a result, I will be unable to complete many of my scientific project ideas and papers, and for the few astrophysicist readers of this blog, I will not be annoyed if you run with them (but please give me proper credit). My next four projects probably would have been the following: modeling galaxy catalogs including realistic dynamics within galaxy groups and clusters within dark matter clumps of the “cosmic web”; assessing observational and theoretical problems in the relation between galaxy stellar mass and dark matter halo mass; modeling the mass-morphology relation of galaxies using constraints I previously obtained with the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project; and modeling and analyzing the star formation rate dependence of the spatial distribution of galaxies in the distant cosmic past. I am happy to give more details about any of these ideas.

4. We should also address the problem of academic status inequality. If a person makes it to an elite university or has the opportunity to work with a big-name faculty member or manages to win a prestigious award, grant or fellowship, that is an excellent achievement of which they should be proud. Nevertheless, such a person is essentially endorsed by the establishment and is much more likely to be considered part of an in-crowd, with everyone else struggling in the periphery. In-crowd scientists then often have an easier time obtaining future opportunities, and like an academic capitalism, wealth and capital flow toward this in-crowd at the expense of the periphery scientists. On the one hand, the in-crowd scientists have accomplished something and the community should encourage them to continue their work. On the other hand, scientists are busy people, but they can also be lazy; it’s too easy to give an award to someone who as already received one or to hire someone from another elite institution rather than to assess the merits of the many people with whom they may be less familiar.

According to a recent study in Science Advances, the top ten elite universities produce three times as many future professors as the next ten in the rankings. However, the authors find plenty of evidence that this system does not resemble a meritocracy; in addition, female graduates slip 15% further down the academic hierarchy than men from the same institutions. According to a Slate piece by Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset, a co-author of the paper, the findings suggest that upward career mobility in the world of professors is mostly a myth. Many scientists coming from academic outsiders—not from the elite universities—have made important discoveries in the past, but their peers only slowly noticed them. “Thanks to the restrictive nature of the academic system there may be many more innovations that are languishing in obscurity, and they will continue to do so until our universities find a way to apply the principles of diversity they espouse in building student bodies to their hiring practices as well.”

5. As I’ve written before, much more work can be done to improve gender, race, class and other forms of diversity when hiring students, postdocs and faculty and promoting them at universities. Furthermore, when organizing conferences, workshops, meetings and speaker series, diverse committees should explicitly take these principles into consideration. Even the most thorough and attentive committees must also beware of “unconscious bias,” which affects everyone but can be reduced.

6. In a related point, colleges and universities can implement many family-friendly (or more generally, life-friendly) policies to improve and promote work-life balance of academic workers. These include flexible schedules, parental leave, tenure-clock extensions and many others. However, this is not sufficient: scientists who happen to lack the benefits and privileges of white, male, straight people from elite universities seem to have to work that much harder to have a chance of drawing the attention of hiring committees. One should not need to work 100 hours a week to be a successful scientist. Shouldn’t we want more balanced scientists with lives and interests beyond their narrow research field? This means that committees should recognize that sometimes excellent scientists may have fewer yet very high-quality accomplishments and may be under the radar waiting to be “discovered.”

7. The scientific community would also benefit from more opportunities for videoconferencing, in which people remotely present talks and field questions about them. As I’ve written for the American Astronomical Society Sustainability Committee, our biggest source of carbon emissions comes from frequent travel, and we should try to reduce our carbon “footprint.” Moreover, people at small colleges with small travel budgets and people with families who have a harder time traveling would appreciate this, as it would level the playing field a bit. Of course, there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, but people continue to improve video tools with Skype, Google and many others, which could be utilized much more extensively.

8. Finally, I argue that everyone would benefit from more and better interactions between scientists, public affairs representatives and government affairs officials at universities. Such interactions would help scientists to present their accomplishments to a wider community, help universities to publicize their scientists’ work, and help political officials to understand the important science being done in their districts, often benefiting from federal and state investment.

These are my current thoughts, and I hope they spark discussions and debates.

How the Worsening Two-Tier Higher Education System Affects Students and Teachers

Two years ago, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who had worked for decades at Duquesne University, passed away at the age of 83. According to Daniel Kovalik, a lawyer for her and the United Steelworkers, “unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits, and with a salary of $3,000 to $3,500 [or less] per three-credit course.” But then in a matter of months, her cancer returned, she became nearly homeless as she could not afford the maintenance of her home or even the cost of heating it during the cold Pittsburgh winter, and Duquesne, which did not recognize the adjuncts’ union, let her go. She died as the result of cardiac arrest a couple weeks later.

Vojtko’s struggle and tragic story is a moving reminder about the plight of adjunct professors throughout the United States. Adjuncts strive to get by under immense stress on the lower rung of a widening two-tier academic system while educating the majority of students in colleges and universities. Over the past year, I have worked as a research scientist, a freelance science writer, and recently, a lecturer in physics at the University of California, San Diego. The latter position exposed me to only a fraction of the heavy workload of adjuncts, many of whom teach multiple courses simultaneously at different institutions and with little support, not knowing where or whether they might find work next.

According to a report by the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts now constitute more than 76 percent of U.S. faculty. In a report titled “The Just-in-Time Professor,” the House Education and the Workforce Committee finds that the majority of adjuncts live below the poverty line. Many universities, especially public ones, experience perennial budget pressures over the years and have been reducing their numbers of tenured and tenure-track faculty, resulting in a rapid shift of the teaching load to much lower paid “contingent faculty.” Incoming students expect to be taught by full professors and may be surprised to find adjuncts teaching their classes. In spite of their working conditions, the adjuncts are just as good, but “the problem is not the people who are in the part-time or nontenure positions, it’s the lack of support they get from their institutions,” said John Curtis, the director of research and policy at the AAUP.

Like freelance workers and those in the sharing economy, adjunct professors have become part of a growing “reserve army of labor.” After many years navigating academia, which can be viewed as “path dependence and sunk costs,” many people see teaching and educating the next generation of students as their calling. Adjunct jobs give them the opportunities they seek along with flexible careers that outsiders romanticize. But make no mistake: many adjuncts cannot make a living from their work and have become increasingly unhappy about their working conditions.

The craze about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, further increases pressure on adjunct professors. Many universities, including UC San Diego, have jumped on the bandwagon behind Coursera and other online-education companies. These companies’ MOOCs and technologies may have some utility, but they have not (yet?) delivered on their potential and they are not the wave of the future. MOOCs still have poor completion rates, and nothing beats interacting and engaging with a real teacher in real time.

Adjuncts have been exploited by the “Walmart-ization” of higher education, according to Keith Hoeller, author of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. This system neither benefits the universities nor the teachers, who have little job security and support, nor the students themselves, who need to develop relationships with teachers with sufficient resources, office space, and career-development tools. Many resist the adjunct crisis by joining unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (of which I have been a member), Service Employees International Union, and others, and by protesting, such as in the National Adjunct Walkout Day in February. Adjunct unions have advocated for more tenured positions and longer-term salaried contracts with benefits. Some also campaign for an aspirational $15K per course, connecting their struggle to that of workers calling for a $15/hour minimum wage.

Nevertheless, universities need more funding to significantly improve this situation. Increasing student tuition is not the solution, of course, as ballooning student debt levels are already far too high. Tuition costs have rapidly increased over the past few decades because of declining state and federal funding, growing administrations and bureaucracy, and the large costs of sports facilities and coach salaries. If efforts were made along each of these directions, student tuition could be reduced while improving teaching positions. In any case, universities and governments have an important opportunity and responsibility now to improve the conditions in which teachers teach and students learn. In the future, we can hope that other teachers will not have to experience what Margaret Mary Vojtko went through.

Tussles in Brussels: How Einstein vs Bohr Shaped Modern Science Debates

In one corner, we have a German-born theoretical physicist famous for his discovery of the photoelectric effect and his groundbreaking research on relativity theory. In the opposite corner, hailing from Denmark, we have a theoretical physicist famous for his transformational work on quantum theory and atomic structure. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr frequently butted heads over the interpretation of quantum mechanics and even over the scope and purpose of physics, and their debates still resonate today.

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein (photo by Paul Ehrenfest, 1925).

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein (photo by Paul Ehrenfest, 1925).

In a class on “Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics,” I am teaching my students fundamentals about quantum physics, and I try to incorporate some of this important history too. In the early 20th century, physicists gradually adopted new concepts such as discrete quantum energy states and wave-particle duality, in which under certain conditions light and matter exhibit both wave and particle behavior. Nevertheless, other quantum concepts proposed by Bohr and his colleagues, such as non-locality and a probabilistic view of the wave function, proved more controversial. These are not mere details, as more was at stake—whether one can retain scientific realism and determinism, as was the case with classical physics, if Bohr’s interpretation turns out to be correct.

Bohr had many younger followers trying to make names for themselves, including Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, and others. As experimental physicists explored small-scale physics, new phenomena required explanations. One could argue that some of Bohr and his followers’ discoveries and controversial hypotheses were to some extent just developments of models that managed to fit the data, and the models needed a coherent theoretical framework to base them on. On the other hand, Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and Louis de Broglie were skeptical or critical about some of these proposals.

The debates between Einstein and Bohr came to a head as they clashed in Brussels in 1927 at the Fifth Solvay Conference and at the next conference three years later. It seems like all of the major physics figures of the day were present, including Einstein, Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, Pauli, Schrödinger, de Broglie, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Paul Dirac, and others. (Curie was the only woman there, as physics had an even bigger diversity problem back then. The nuclear physicist Lise Meitner came on the scene a couple years later.)

Conference participants, October 1927. Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels.

Conference participants, October 1927. Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels.

Einstein tried to argue, with limited success, that quantum mechanics is inconsistent. He also argued, with much more success in my opinion, that (Bohr’s interpretation of) quantum mechanics is incomplete. Ultimately, however, Bohr’s interpretation carried the day and became physicists’ “standard” view of quantum mechanics, in spite of later developments by David Bohm supporting Einstein’s realist interpretation.

Although the scientific process leads us in fruitful directions and encourages us to explore important questions, it does not take us directly and inevitably toward a unique “truth.” It’s a messy nonlinear process, and since scientists are humans too, the resolution of scientific debates can depend on historically contingent social and cultural factors. James T. Cushing (my favorite professor when I was an undergraduate) argued as much in his book, Quantum Mechanics: Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Hegemony.

Why do the Einstein vs Bohr debates still fascinate us—as well as historians, philosophers, and sociologists—today? People keep discussing and writing about them because these two brilliant and compelling characters confronted each other about issues with implications about the scope and purpose of physics and how we view the physical world. Furthermore, considering the historically contingent aspects of these developments, we should look at current scientific debates with a bit more skepticism or caution.

Implications for Today’s Scientific Debates

In recent years, we have witnessed many intriguing disagreements about important issues in physics and astrophysics and in many other fields of science. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, scientists debated whether the motions, masses, and distributions of galaxies were consistent with the existence of dark matter particles or whether gravitational laws must be modified. Now cosmologists disagree about the likely nature of dark energy and about the implications of inflation for the multiverse and parallel universes. And string theory is a separate yet tenuously connected debate. On smaller scales, we have seen debates between astrobiologists about the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets, about whether to send missions to other planets, and even disagreements about the nature of planets, which came to the fore with Pluto‘s diminished status.

Scientists play major roles in each case and sometimes become public figures, including Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Roger Penrose, Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, Max Tegmark, Mike Brown, Carolyn Porco, and others. Moreover, many scientists are also science communicators and actively participate in social media, as conferences aren’t the only venues for debates anymore. For example, 14 of the top 50 science stars on Twitter are physicists or astronomers. Many scientists communicate their views to the public, and people want to hear them weigh in on important issues and on “what it all means.” (Contrary to an opinion expressed by deGrasse Tyson, physicists are philosophers too.)

In any case, as scientific debates unfold, we should keep in mind that sometimes we cannot find a unique elegant explanation to a phenomenon, or if such an explanation exists, it may remain beyond our grasp for a long time. Furthermore, we should keep our minds open to the possibility that our own interpretation of a scientific phenomenon could be incomplete, incoherent, or even incorrect.

Exploring Physics with Intertribal Youth at UCSD

[This is about a physics outreach event at UC San Diego this summer, and it will be published in the UCSD Fall Newsletter. Many thanks to Susan Brown for editing assistance.]

How does a speaker system work? Why do figure skaters spin faster when they draw in their arms and legs? Where does static electricity come from? How much energy does a lightbulb use? Native American students asked these kinds of questions on Friday, July 25th, as they participated in a physics outreach event at UC San Diego.

As part of a two-week visit to UCSD, San Diego State, and Cal State San Marcos, twenty five middle and high school students traveled to campus on Friday morning to engage in hand-on activities and demonstrations with physics researchers, postdocs, and grad students. They’re part of Intertribal Youth, a fourteen year-old organization directed by Marc Chavez and based in California with the purpose of enriching the lives of young students.


The event on Friday was primarily organized by Adam Burgasser, an associate professor of physics, and Dianna Cowern, an outreach coordinator, both at the Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences. Adam, who has worked extensively on outreach and diversity programs, contacted the ITY group through the UCSD Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which resulted in this event at Mayer Hall (Revelle College) and other planned outreach events.

We planned demonstrations in five physics areas, including electricity and magnetism, vibration and sound, optics and light, solar energy, and momentum. Unfortunately, we had to skip the solar energy one because it was surprisingly cloudy for San Diego—the marine layer persisted all morning. We divided the students into four groups, and they spent about twenty five minutes exploring and learning about each of the other topics.

Drew Nguyen and I facilitated demonstrations on Mayer Hall’s balcony on linear and angular momentum, including an air rocket, a rotating chair and hand-crank bicycle wheel, and a basketball and tennis ball. Students discovered that it’s easy to make a simple rocket: we held a 2-liter plastic Coke bottle on a wooden base, poured in a little water and pumped in air with a bike pump, and then let go and watched it take off and fly a couple stories into the air! (I got a bit wet as water spurted out the bottom.) Students experimented with it and some were surprised that without the water to keep the air pressure high, the bottle had no thrust and remained grounded.


In another demo, students would spin each other on a rotating stool while keeping their arms extended. Then when the seated person brings in their arms, they rotate faster, just like a rapidly spinning figure skater, which demonstrated the conservation of angular momentum. In a related demo, we hung a bike wheel from a rope attached to its axis, and when it’s spinning rapidly, it could spin vertically or tilted, and the person holding the rope could feel the momentum of the wheel. This demo always impressed students, such as Marla and Dakota. Dakota thought it was “crazy and weird” that the wheel would rotate this way, until he and the other students figured it out. Marla realized that it’s the same principle that keeps a tilted bike from falling over when someone’s riding around a curve in the road.

The students enjoyed playing with these and other demos. For example, inside Mayer Hall, they explored a bunch of experiments related to electricity and magnetism. They particularly enjoyed the van de Graaff generator, which is a hollow metal globe on top of a stand and which uses a moving belt to generate static electricity. When you touch it with particular rods, which might be like lightning rods, it generates sparks—and the students sometimes shocked each other too. But touching the globe with your own hand makes your hair stand on end. It was hard to tear the students away from these exciting experiments and continue with them all over the course of the morning.

During those couple hours, they actively learned a couple things about physics and engaged with real-life scientists. These outreach events help to spark the students’ interest in science, and particularly in physics and astronomy, and we hope to inspire a few of them will be inspired to pursue science further as they continue their education and become the next generation of scientists.

After the demonstrations, everyone loved the liquid nitrogen ice cream, which Adam and the students made on the patio. It tastes a lot like regular ice cream, but it’s much more fun. Over the rest of their visit, the ITY students enjoyed other activities in the San Diego region including a “star party” at the La Jolla Indian Reservation on the following Tuesday night.

Citizen Science: a tool for education and outreach

I’ll write about a different kind of topic today. “Citizen science” is a relatively new term though the activity itself is not so new. One definition of citizen science is “the systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis.” It involves public participation and engagement in scientific research in a way that educates the participants, makes the research more democratic, and makes it possible to perform tasks that a small number of researchers could not accomplish alone. Volunteers simply need access to a computer (or smartphone) and an internet connection to become involved and assist scientific research.


Citizen science was popularized a few years ago by Galaxy Zoo, which involved visually classifying hundreds of thousands of galaxies into spirals, ellipticals, mergers, and finer classifications using the classification tree below. (I am a member of the Galaxy Zoo collaboration and have published a few papers with them.) As a result of “crowdsourcing” the work of more than 100,000 volunteers around the world, new scientific research can be done that was not previously possible with such large datasets, including studies of the handedness of spiral galaxies, analyses of the environmental dependence of barred galaxies, and the identification of rare objects such as a quasar light echo that was dubbed “Hanny’s Voorwerp”. Other citizen science projects include mapping the moon, mapping air pollution, counting birds with birdwatchers, classifying a variety of insects, and many other projects.


Citizen scientists have many motivations, but it appears that the primary one is the desire to make a contribution to scientific research (see this paper). In the process, by bringing together professional scientists and members of the general public and facilitating interactions between them, citizen science projects are important for outreach purposes, not just for research. In addition, by encouraging people to see a variety of images or photographs and to learn about how the research is done, citizen science is useful for education as well. Many valuable educational tools have been produced (such as by the Zooniverse projects). Citizen science projects are popular and proliferating because they give the opportunity for people at home or in the classroom to become actively involved in science. It has other advantages too, including raising awareness and stimulating interest in particular issues. Citizen science is continuing to evolve, and in the era of “big data” and social media, it has much potential and room for improvement.

On the US federal budget

I’d like to briefly comment on the budget(s) being negotiated in Congress.  In particular, I’ll try to focus on the impact on investment in science, though there are other important issues as well, such as the unemployment benefits that apparently won’t be extended and the cuts on military retirees’ benefits.  The budget plan led by Rep. Paul Ryan (who is a questionable choice for the job) and Sen. Patty Murray has passed the House and is expected to pass in the Senate later today.

Budget negotiations are often boring but are nonetheless important.  The current two-year budget plan has advantages and disadvantages.  The first and most ridiculous “advantage” is that a budget deal would avoid a government shutdown.  Such is the state of affairs in US politics.  The shutdown harmed many sectors of the government: clinical trials at the NIH were suspended; inspections and other work was suspended at the FDA and Consumer Product Safety Commission; staff at the CDC and EPA were put on furlough; key tests for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to Hubble) were suspended; the National Science Foundation canceled its Antarctic research program; and three of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s telescopes were shut down, resulting in a substantial loss of data.  Ultimately, this considerably hurts US competitiveness in science: according to the OECD, the US is ranked 21st and 26th in science and math, below a few developing countries such as Vietnam.

An important advantage of the current budget bill is that it eases some of the across-the-board spending cuts due to the “sequestration”.  These cuts were extremely harmful on basic scientific research, which already receives less than 1% of the federal budget, as opposed to at least 20% to the military.  Earlier this year, more than fifty Nobel laureates wrote to Congress, urging them to remove these cuts to science investment.  Scientific research will be affected for years to come, and research funded by the NIH, NSF, NASA, and the DOE’s Office of Science are particularly affected.  Federally funded agencies and universities have attempted to sustain their research programs and avoid laying off scientists, but some may no longer be able to continue doing so.  Science and engineering education at colleges and universities have been affected as well.

Under the Ryan/Murray deal, approximately 75% of the spending reduction under sequestration will remain in place.  According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the deal may result in a restoration of roughly $8 billion in R&D funding above sequester levels over the next two years, though the final allocations for FY 2014 are now up to appropriators.

Though the budget deal may be better than no deal at all, it seems possible that congressional lawmakers could come up with and pass a better budget.  Science research and education should be spared the sequestration’s cuts.