According to Huffington Post, 20% of the country’s scientists will jump on the nearest cargo ship and head for points unknown because the government slowed its rate of increase in spending. So distraught are the whitecoats over the increase in the NIH budget—a small increase was reported to be a “drying up of resources”—that they’re ready to leave everything behind and begin anew in some foreign land.
The huffy reporter got his facts from a survey put out by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology entitled Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity, the conclusion of which is:
We strongly urge the federal government to overturn sequestration and return to a strong, sustained investment in scientific research.
They reached that scientific conclusion by asking about 3,700 researchers, “Would you like more money?” Kidding!
They queried scientists from “many” fields; actually, over 90% were biologists of one kind or another, the majority of which lived on soft money. “Soft money” means “writing grants” for a living. And that largely means petitioning various Government agencies for two kinds of funds: (1) salary and supplies for the scientists, (2) “overhead” for the deans and administrators.
Overhead? That’s the (roughly) twenty to sixty percent of the grant total tacked on at the end and which greases the wheels of the system. Some of the overhead pays the light bills and so forth, but some of it is shunted into “projects” thought important by administrators. The money to pay the fifth Office of Diversity Control has to come from somewhere, after all. Skip it.
Why the concern? According to the ASBMB itself (p. 6), “While the actual budgets of most research funding agencies have increased slightly…” there’s actually been some kind of decrease. If you squint. They didn’t like this, and they didn’t think others would, either. So off they went on their survey hunt.
A lot of their scientists said they spent more time writing grants and that the grants they eventually won are thinner than before (Qs 6-10). Though anecdotal, this is probably true. But what the ASBMB neglects to say is that the number of scientists competing for the trough increased, especially in matters biological. PhDs are churned out as if from an assembly line; postdocs wander hopefully from institute to institute. Some scientists even turn to writing blogs and private consulting. Only so many can feed off a finite number of governmental teats.
Then came the soul searching. Consider this puzzler: “[Question] 12. If funding was abundant, do you believe there are new frontiers in scientific research that we would be exploring that we are not now? What are they?” They parlayed the answers to that into the conclusion that funding must be ever increased for “American scientists to continue to make the discoveries that improve our lives.” The press liked that one.
Question “14. Growth in the federal investments in scientific research is necessary to maintain a vibrant and productive American research enterprise.” Is it only curmudgeonly independents who would disagree with this?
My favorite: “13. Minimal growth in the federal budgets for science research over the last several years has damaged the American research enterprise.” Notice that the growth that everybody experienced is built into the question.
They didn’t ask this question, “How much growth is enough?” Why? Because it’s a trick. Enough is never enough.
But the question generating the most buzz was 10: What about all this, eh? 3% said they lost a job, but 45% said they knew the friend of a friend who’s brother knew a guy who lost his job. More kidding! The 45% said they personally knew somebody who was canned. Maybe so. But did these folks find another government-funded job? Or did they have to stoop to working for a corporation?
More gloom: 36% said they knew somebody who will lose their job. How do they know this and is it true? Never mind.
The biggest headlines (here and here) came from the 18% (not 20%) who agreed “I am considering continuing my research career in another country.” Since this is a family blog, I can’t use the phrase that naturally comes to mind, though I can give you a hint: its initials are B and S.
If these guys are going to go, then adieu, adiós, sayonara, so long, etc. But how many actually will wake up from their daydream and snatch up their passports? Close to none. And the handful that flee will be replaced faster (yes) than they can quit.
What a goofy survey.