Policy

Science And Money: A Personal Story

While its good to think on the large scales about science, art, spiritual endeavor and the search for the Truth, sometimes it's the day to day that matters. There are the scales on which metaphysics and grand ideals of science exist and then there is the writing of your latest NASA grant. For the last few weeks I have mostly forsaken the former and have been living with the latter.

I have been to the mountain and have seen how laws, sausage and science funding is made. The truth is, it ain't so bad. After years of this I am still quite amazed at how well the system can work.

Science funding moves in a pretty straight forward way. You have an idea, you find out which funding agency best relates to the idea relates(NASA, the NSF, DOE, NIH, the alphabet soap goes on and and on). Then you figure out which specific program in that specific agency would be most interested  (Astrophysical Data Program, Origins, AstroBiology, Living with a Star etc etc - these are NASA programs)

Next - and here is the hard part - you give up a couple of weeks of your life to write a 15 page proposal with figures and equations. The proposal needs a decent narrative and a good balance of showing what your group has done and showing what you think you could get done with 3 years of funding. Then, if you are lucky, and talented administrative staff to help you navigate the pages of government-issue forms and tables, you finally send the whole package away  and light a candle at the alter of St. Euler who watches over grant proposals on astrophysical fluid dynamics.

Then you wait and wait and wait.

It takes about a 9 months for the grants agency to get back to you. Its a huge effort for them.  During that time they short through all the proposals and form review committees.  The committees are made up of othet scientists who volunteer their time and must be flown in from all over the country.  The committee's meet, discuss and rank the giant stack of proposals the agency must deal with. The funding rate is usually somewhere between 10% (ugh) and 30% (ugh still but better). These panels are where the rubber meets the road. 

I have sat on a lot of these panels and for the most part I am happy to say they work.

It is a most fascinating exercise to see the very human politics which goes into the search for eternal, timeless truths. People have their biases. Some argue their case better than others. Sometimes a strong or well known personality can dominate the process. Still, in spite of all our foibles, it almost always seems that the best science gets recognized and rises to the top. I have always been impressed by this and it gives me faith that we have stumbled on something, some genuine, workable means to organize an effort to understand the world.

Of course those proposals at the top don't always get funded. There simply is not enough money to fund the best ones that deserve funding (which I would estimate make up about a third of the proposals). It would be great to live in a world were all the the proposals which deserve funding getting it but that may never happen.  (Its worth noting that we are not talking monumental amounts of cash here. The NSF budget for all astronomy including funding telescope operations is 250 million).

So that is how the process works and, if you ask me, in general it does work. I have had lots of proposals fail and enough proposals make it.  Overall I think the system is as fair as it can be.

But there is an important caveat here. I am writing about grants on the scale of an individual scientist or her group. When we talk large projects like the Large Hadron Collider or the International Space Station all this changes. Politics with a capitol P enters the picture in a big way. Individual projects on that scale, with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars on the line operate in a different realm. It is at that level that one can ask how the balance between science and other, less scientific, demands are managed.

The search for truth and spending of a nations treasure - how do they overlap? How do they balance?

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