Wednesday, February 17, 2010

One Year of Stimulating Science

Last year was a good year for science. Thanks to a $3 billion dollar windfall from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the NSF enjoyed a 50% increase in its expected level of funding for 2009. Scientific American just published an nice piece on the ARRA's impact on science over the past year (this article is the source for most of the facts mentioned below) . Anyone who's applied for funding from the NSF over the year and half doesn't need an article in Scientific American to tell them that the NSF devoted the bulk of its boost to grants. At the evolution meetings in Moscow Idaho last summer it wasn't hard to find others like me who had just been awarded ARRA funds. Those of us receiving these funds were told that our prosposals were deemed worthy of funding by the NSF's review process, but wouldn't have received funds in an ordinary year due to budgetary constraints.

For years, the NSF has received many more worthy proposals than it was able to fund, resulting in a logjam of high quality proposals and stifling progress in many important disciplines. Indeed, nearly 80% of the NSF's ARRA funds went to clearing the NSF's backlog, being used to fund highly rated, but unfunded, awards that were submitted the previous year. Although those who didn't submit proposals eligible for ARRA support might feel like they've been left out, the clearing of NSF's backlog is sure to result in higher funding for proposals submitted more recently.

Short-sighted politicians are likely to find fault with the fact that the NSF ranks second to last among federal agencies in spending their stimulus funds (only $136 million of the NSF's ARRA award has been spent). The reason for this are clear - most grants from NSF are multi-year awards and are going to sit in the bank accounts of awardee's institutions as they are allocated over the years to come. This does not mean, of course, that these awards are not having an immediate impact. The bulk of the money associated with my award is going directly to salaries of PhD students and undergraduate employees. My collaborator is using his share of the funds to hire two post-doctoral scholars. Our award, therefore, will directly fund three-four full time positions and a number of additional part-time positions for the next two and half years. Perhaps more importantly than providing jobs today, our award is also contributing tremendously to training the next generation of scientists. While it may not have the same immediate impact as other worthy investments like hiring jobless construction workers to build bridges and roads, the ARRA's gift to the NSF is likely to be a gift that keeps on giving both to the academic community and the country at large for many years to come.