Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Priorities -- and this time it's personal

Mark Fischetti in Scientific American provides a picture of federal spending on scientific research and development. In 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services got about $29 billion. The Department of Defense got $56 billion. Other money is scattered here and there, some of it for social benefit, such as $343 million for the Department of Education (that's with an M, not a B, in other words less than 1/100th of what DoD gets), and $3.6 billion (back to a B again) for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Republicans are vowing to cut all non-defense research spending, as you may have heard. They can do it, too, because appropriations require affirmative action by the House of Representatives. The Senate and President can't do anything to produce appropriations the House doesn't generate.

My work is funded mostly funded by NIH, the biggest component of HHS R&D spending at $28.5 billion. I'm dependent on a very small part of that, however. The U.S. supported only about $1.1 billion in social science research in 2009. Right now, many investigators are waiting on grants that haven't come through because the federal government is operating on a continuing resolution that level funds all the agencies, and the NIH institutes and centers are reluctant to commit to new projects since they don't know what's going to happen in March when it runs out.

We'll all keep trying, of course. NIH isn't going to go away. But the current level of funding has created a community of investigators of a certain size. If it falls, some number of post-docs will never get faculty appointments and some number of research faculty will get squeezed out. The pace of discovery and translation to better medical care will slow down. The hope you may have for better treatment or prevention for MS or Alzheimer's or pancreatic cancer or HIV will be delayed; the work I do to improve the delivery and effectiveness of medical services will slow down too, in case anyone cares.

On the other hand, we will, if the Republicans have their way, continue to invest more and more in better and more effective ways to kill and maim people. It is, after all, the Christian thing to do.

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