Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Shovel-ready science

I just got off of a conference call with the acting NIH director, wherein he briefed what I presume were 6 gazillion panting scientists about what's going to happen with the $10.4 billion NIH got from the stimulus bill.

NIH will end up with about $800 million for comparative effectiveness research, half of it looped through AHRQ for some reason, which is actually a fulfillment of an Obama campaign promise, as you may recall -- and, bizarrely, a bete noir with a large segment of the right that actually thinks it's a violation of your freedom for you and your doctor to know which treatments work better. Weird, bizarre, and very very strange.

Other money goes for construction programs, like building and fixing up labs -- $1 billion of it to external institutions, i.e. mostly colleges and universities. Maybe Harvard can finish that new stem cell research center after all! (Those of you who don't live in the Athens of America probably don't know that they had to put it on hold because they lost all their money at the dog track.)

The part I really care about -- $8.2 billion -- is to fund actual scientific research. Yay! The director will get an $800 million slush fund to do with as he pleases, it seems. Of the remaining $7.4 billion (believe me, it goes fast when you start spreading it around), it must all be used for projects that will be completed within 2 years and won't create out-year commitments. That's a weird criterion for research, believe me. No large-scale trials or epidemiological studies will be funded, we've all got to scramble to think up stuff we can do fast.

Some of it will go to existing applications that were approved as scientifically meritorious but didn't make the pay line. Rats, I don't have anything in.

Some of it will go as supplements to current projects. That we can do. One idea is to create more post-doctoral fellowships for out-of-work Ph.D.s That will create some job openings on the back end for cab drivers.

Some of it will be for new programs, in what are called NIH Challenge Grants. The solicitations will be out soon.

This is all great -- we're all feeling like kids in the candy store right now -- but it is also quite bizarre. There will be this 2-year torrent of money and then slam, the spigot will be off. Will all those nerds be back in the cab in 2011? Just wondering . . .


Anonymous said...

I was very much afraid of something like what you describe.

(I am very doubtful about all of Obama’s bail-outs, TARP, TALF, GM, stimulations, recovery bills! etc.)

This is money with a shelf-date (presuming that what is unspent after the time period goes back to the State.) It is an expiring currency - solution that is often proposed to increase velocity. (You get paid for your work with money you must spend within 2 months, you can’t invest it or ‘bank’ it.) ... anyway this is not an economics blog.

The terms do make it look more like a economic move than a true attempt to spend more (and better!) for scientific research. As is, 2 years is nothing in Science terms, and for sure a lot of the money will be wasted. It also smells like a political move - if it takes about a year to get some of the projects grinding, the full effects will be felt just when Obi-man runs for re-election.

(Full disclosure: I am not an Obama fan.)


Cervantes said...

I don't think the money will be wasted -- there is useful work that can be done within two years, and technically, the money only has to be obligated, not spent, which in practice gives you several extra months. But no, it's not ideal. We'll have to work to get funding to sustain the work that is built up during this period.

Anonymous said...

I’m sure good work will be done, maybe I was a bit hasty with ‘wasted’ - you are seeing the projects and approve of them (or most, whatever) and no doubt rightly.

But as you say yself> What happens next? Where is the follow up? What happens to the ppl who suddenly got a ‘job’ - post doc etc - with this kind of saccaded funding? And his or her hard work and drive for future devps?

Where are the national aims, the national plans for the future (usually 10 0r 20 year in the EU) - say cancer research? Where are the cost-benefit analyses? For so much money it would seem normal..

Now sprinkle has advantages and its proponents. As whatever existed before (was approved etc.) is thus stamped OK, well then up the budgets of everyone, 5% or whatever. Might include cameras in towns, food for poor children, saving the crab apple - etc. (DoD left off.)

That’s not what Obama is doing; he has made a big point of distributin’ largesse to only some crucial areas. Large part of his electoral platform...but then you have to do it right for it to have effect...


Cervantes said...

Agree 100%. But what I'm hoping is that this money got crammed in on a short-term basis because that was politically feasible, and they're going to work on a long-range plan for sustainable development at NIH before this round of funding runs out.