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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Science Makes America Great, and President Trump's Budget Aims to Destroy It

President Trump's first budget proposal is calling for dramatic cuts to many agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the leading funders of research in the USA - the NIH would face around a $6 billion cut (~20%). The NIH is the largest funder of medical research in the world, and back much of the medical research in universities and labs around the country. Many of the medications and treatments used today had their start in NIH grants, and key research leads to entire industries, such as what arose from the Human Genome Project. The NIH have a nice list of the value they add to society, the economy, and our lives, here.

In large part it's the Research and Development funding from the US federal government that makes the USA the global leader in technology. Studies demonstrate that funding at the R&D level result in up to $8.38 of economic activity 8 years later for each $1 invested - infrastructure debt, that supposedly we'll find $1 trillion for under the mattress, would be expected to show around $1.92 return per dollar within a few years, and about $3.21 over 20 years

By a factor of 3 or more, spending on basic R&D returns huge economic benefits to the country compared to infrastructure, and it's simply short sighted to cut. (Of course a functional infrastructure is also needed, hard to drive to your research lab without roads! But it's not a binary either/or choice - and 'infrastructure' like a pointless/counterproductive border wall will cost more than is saved with the NIH cuts) This has been something that every administration for over 40 years has recognised, and can be seen in data collected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Clinton years saw a massive rise in NIH spending, and we're reaping the benefit of that investment now. Even in the Bush through Obama years, while NIH remained flat (barring the ARRA boost), other agencies saw an increase. The cuts in the Trump budget are unprecedented in the last half century.

The smartest students from around the world come to US universities to study, both as undergraduates and researchers - and the US gains the best and the brightest of the rest of the world, and without paying the cost of raising those people. It's a huge net positive for the country, especially when those people stay, become citizens, and have children, as people tend to do when they are welcomed and given a chance to contribute. Those children of immigrants themselves are typically far more likely to contribute to the advancement of the country in science. Consider this statement from a Forbes article on immigrants:

A new study from the National Foundation for American Policy found a remarkable 83% (33 of 40) of the finalists of the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search were the children of immigrants. ... In fact, 75% – 30 out of 40 – of the finalists had parents who worked in America on H-1B visas and later became green card holders and U.S. citizens. That compares to seven children who had both parents born in the United States.

So this science spending results in economic returns of at least a factor of 8 within 8 years, and encourages smart, law abiding, company founding, job creating immigrants to come to the USA, have children who are then the most driven of their generation, will improve society and the economy decades from now, and make sure we can all retire well in a booming economy. Why would you destroy that?

Well allow me to answer that. It could be you are:

A) Ridiculously stupid and short sighted, utterly unaware, and uncaring, of the consequences
B) An idealogical zealot intent on destroying goverment at any cost
C) Racist and want to discourage immigration
D) Intent on damaging the tech industry out of spite
E) An agent of a foreign power intent on destroying the long term effectiveness of your enemy
F) All of the above

Given this current administration, it's 'F', with each person in it more of one of those than the other. Bannon and Miller are simply white supremacists and want to end all immigration, legal or not, to the country - they've literally said "legal immigration is the real problem". The tech industry has been vocal in its opposition to the Executive Order that has now been rejected by the courts twice, and by cutting science funding it harms them, despite the negative consequences to the country - a price the likes of Bannon would pay given he doesn't like the race of many Silicon Valley company CEOs. Price, as head of Health and Human Services, is a member of a group that is anti-vaccine - which is one of the greatest success stories in saving lives and health in the 20th Century. The President shrugged his shoulders last week claiming "Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated", which even for Donald Trump manages to rank as one of the dumbest things he's ever said (despite the pretty stiff competition). 

And then there's the 'agent of a foreign power' - Vladimir Putin must be giving himself a hernia from laughing so much at the self inflicted damage the USA (and the UK with Brexit) are inflicting on themselves. There's no proof it's a direct agent doing this, but "useful idiots" helped into positions of power are achieving what Russia and other unfriendly nations can only dream of.

While the administration has to get this budget through Congress (Republican controlled and so far they seem unwilling to stand up to even the most ridiculous of his behaviours, even when he literally fabricates a felony perpetrated by his predecessor.) but the President has lost on pretty much everything he's pushed as signature policies over the last 2 months (still waiting to be "so sick of winning"). Hopefully the worst of this will be stopped, but will only happen if Congress sees their own hides, or money to their constituencies, threatened. Sadly, 'upset scientists' is not a key demographic - at least not yet - and regardless of what happens here, it's clear that the President and his administration are intent on gutting one of the great American success stories of the last half century.

Science is global, it doesn't care about national boundaries, and published research is by definition known to all, not restricted to a few. Scientists want to educate children to be knowledgeable, thoughtful, inquisitive, and also work with the best and the brightest wherever they are, whatever their gender, religion, race, or country of origin. It's what's raised our life expectancy, our quality of life, our productivity, and our opportunities, and been part of what has kept the USA as a global leader. And all these things are antithetical to a group of people mired in the past, who are wanting to divide us based on religion and race, and destroy one of the most critical things that Made America Great.

What can we do? It's important that those who will vote on this budget know these cuts are counter productive. Call your House and Senate representatives, let them know this can't be allowed to pass in the budget. Make no mistake, there's no sense or logic in these cuts, and the country will be damaged because of them - and for the people proposing this, that's seemingly the intent.


  1. Lets not get all political on this blog please, I love it so much normally!

    1. It's not political, it's factual - please point out to me where I'm wrong, on any numbers, quoting Bannon and Miller saying they want to stop legal immigration, any of it.

      I'd love for this blog to not be political, but when politics steps into science in the way that it just has, I'm going to comment on it.

    2. So much this. The current 'administration' is displaying an unprecedented - and previously unimaginable - combination of mendacity, guile and total fuckwittery and the negative effects are far-reaching. "Lies, Damn Lies and..." is a rather appropriately named platform to discuss the subject; there sure is a lot of rewriting of the truth going on right now. Scientists pride themselves on uncovering the deepest truths about the universe and documenting them impartially for all to build upon. Mr Trump, you're no scientist.

    3. It is impossible to not be political. The shit that politicians do has real effects on peoples' lives whether you talk about it or not, and not talking about it means that you accept what's going on.

      Too many stupid fucking people seem to treat political parties like sports teams and just pick one at random to root for. Or they try to absolve themselves of responsibility by buying into the lie that "they're both the same thing anyway". The Democrats are rotten and corrupt, but the Republicans have long gone insane and been taken over by the authoritarian nuts. The shit that they just voted on in Turkey? That could happen here.

  2. Paul, I'd like to second the recommendation to avoid politics -- I love your blog, it would be a shame if it devolved into the left-right nastiness we can find pretty much anywhere else.

    I'll offer two reasons to eliminate govt science funding, that do not fit into your rubric.

    As a libertarian, I don't want govt funding of anything because taxation is coercive. I believe funding for any program should be strictly voluntary, on an individual basis. You may disagree with this view, but it is a valid one many people share.

    Trump is not libertarian. His reasoning is probably more mundane and common to all politicians: reward your friends and shut out your enemies. If he perceives the tech industry or other sectors to have viciously opposed him, he will try to cut their govt funding. He will try to do the opposite for his loyal supporters. This is usual and precedented by all presidents. I don't like this spoils system at all, as a libertarian, but I think it's a more reasonable explanation than the somewhat extreme examples you suggest.

    Looking forward to your thoughts, I very much respect your opinion!

    1. Thanks for the response, I do appreciate when someone takes the time to explain their views even when I do not agree.

      Very quickly, I'll continue to write on the subjects that interest or rile me. Something people have forgotten how to do, is read another viewpoint and simply disagree, or see a subject that they do not want to read, and simply choose to not read it. I would have thought as a libertarian that would be something you would encourage!

      In normal times, I'd not touch politics, there would be no point. But these are not normal times, this is not a normal administration, and to accept it as normal is to fail in our duty as citizens (assuming you're American!) to participate in the democracy.

      As pointed out above, the name of this blog is 'Lies, Damn Lies, and Startup PR', and this administration has done almost nothing but lie. Today, the DoJ and FBI made it clear (in politer terms) that Donald Trump lied when he said then President Obama wiretapped him.

      That is not normal!

      I do disagree with your view on taxation being voluntary, as history has shown time and time again that every time we try it, it ends in disaster. At some point I'll write a longer response to that point, but in the meantime, The Onion summarises my opinion on this nicely.


      As for Trump, he literally said on his Carlson interview that he knows his policies will impact his loyal supporters worst. Some loyalty from him to them.

      As for my more 'extreme' examples, Bannon and Miller have literally said what I have accused them of, and following the testimony of FBI Director Comey and NSA Director Rogers that the "useful idiot for Russia" option isn't a possibility?

      Lastly - I really do mean literally when I say literally!

    2. "As a libertarian, I don't want govt funding of anything because taxation is coercive."

      Personal property and contracts, the two sacred idols of libertarians, are also coercive since every libertarian fantasy world will still have these enforced by "putting a gun to my head" (police, in other words).

      Life inherently involves coercing people to behave nicely, and being coerced to behave nicely. Even if you think "No, I'm a nice and fair person, I'm not coerced to act this way", those feelings can be reframed as an evolved form of self-coercion that prevents you from acting in a way that invites retaliation.

      Any time that there is a power differential in a relationship, coercion can exist. Why is government coercion so much more special than any other type?

      "You may disagree with this view, but it is a valid one many people share."

      I certainly agree that many people share it. That does not make it anywhere close to "valid".

  3. Hi Paul, I agree that research is important, and R&D drives technological innovations that makes America great. However, as someone who works in a university lab that greatly depends on NIH funding, I can honestly say that 80-90% of the budget goes to funding labs that in all honestly, are nothing more then Federal jobs program to keep scientist employed.
    This is my personal opinion but most basic science research (and a lot of medical related ones too) produce research that in all honesty will have no translatable impact to society.
    In other words, 80-90% of the NIH funded labs in bio should be shut down and the budget redirected to the productive labs (as in those that generate actual useful science). There's just too many labs with unproductive scientists spinning out rubbish research.

    1. Hello Unknown

      I'd love to have more background on what type of institution you work in, and your role there, so we can discuss why you have this opinion, as it's not one that I have witnessed in any of the NIH funded labs I have seen.

      As background, I was heavily involved in some NIH grants over the years, though none for over 6 years now, and worked with other groups who drew resources from NIH. I'm also the Associate Editor in Chief of a leading peer reviewed journal where many NIH funded labs publish, and we aim to keep the standard high, and we see some very good work done that over time makes an impact.

      I'm going to disagree with your statement that most of the work is rubbish and not useful, as basic science is not intended on being directly applicable. If it could be directly applicable, that is exactly the type of work that gets done by industry and not by govt research - you've actually demonstrated that money is going where intended, into basic research, and work that will then go on to underpin immediate impact projects.

      Where is this work published that you talk about? NIH grants are incredibly competitive, from memory it's about 15% of applications that get funding, so you are not funding just any old rubbish - plus it is peer reviewed. And if they fail to deliver, it is noticed and the next grant won't come so easily. Same goes for publications, peer reviewed, and there's no incentive for those peers to make anyone look good, since that's the competition for the next round of funding. To my point above, what is it about your opinion as to the value of the research that makes it a better opinion than the peer reviewers?

      One of the other major aspects of research labs is to train and educate the next generation - I can tell you that most Profs would agree that if impact, results, papers, and patents were the goal then they wouldn't employ a single PhD student, but go straight to PostDocs, who know what they are doing. That would get results for a few years, right up until everyone wondered why they couldn't hire talented staff anymore.

      They hire people who learn slowly, make mistakes, and do work that others in the lab could do faster, better cheaper, because it's part of the job to teach. And just as they get good and useful, they move on - but it's necessary to maintain a pipeline of researchers.

      Finally, if the work you have seen is so awful, why did they keep getting money? Did you see a one off, or did it happen elsewhere too? Where are all these companies in biotech getting their ideas, staff, patents, even equipment?

      Sorry, but I just don't see your anecdote in the NIH lab world I live in.

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