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FY 2012 Appropriations

2011 Federal Budget

True, wrong year, but a perfect picture listed under CC-BY-SA

It is definitely time, or well past the time, to do a (science) budget blog post. As you might have heard, just before the holiday break, Congress passed the Appropriations for 2012, and it is important to take a look at how science funding panned out.

Although, through this analysis and excitement as to how much Congress believes in basic research, I am keeping the following in the back of my mind: the deficit reduction talks will be fervent as ever for the 2013 budget.  And perhaps fuel for those that are asking for the evidence that science is an economic investment is the new publication by Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan, How Economics Shapes Science.  I can not say much about the book at the moment as I need to wait a few weeks for my library to get its hands on the publication. But this science career’s perspective on the publication was incredibly intriguing.

Most of what the public hears about the arrangements that govern research comes from reports by … top administrators at leading universities, eminent faculty members in major science and engineering departments, and high executives of large corporations — “not,” Stephan pointedly notes, “students and postdocs who could not find jobs.”

Are the funds that are appropriated by Congress to the funding agencies, that are then granted to universities and medical schools to carry out basic research and development giving us the results we want? I cannot answer that, but Stephan’s book perhaps attempts to and there will definitely be a discussion of that publication shortly.

But for now, lets not be dour and actually celebrate that at least for 2012, deficit reduction was only a platform for discussion and did not result in any actual significant budget cutting (at least in NIH and NSF’s budget). Overall, many agencies remained at or slightly above 2011 levels. However, these final appropriations were quite the loss for the Administration as they are are far below the original requests made last Feburary. Specifically, NIH’s budget remained at $30.2 billion, DOE received 4.9% increase ($209 million) from FY 2011 in the Office of Science and a 10.5% increase ($198 million) for energy programs and NSF gained a 2.5% increase for $7.0 billion.

Although the real question is, with the 2013 budget requests to be unvailed in the next month, in an election year, on the coat-tails of a year-long “deficit reduction or it’ll be Armageddon” fest, how will science R&D do?

First, Congress and the Administration seem to acknowledge that discretionary spending was neither the basic cause of the country’s deficit problem nor the principle source of savings to solve it. Second, science, especially basic science investments, remain popular with both parties, both branches of Congress and with the Obama Administration — and even more importantly with the American people. Just how popular remains to be seen.

The above is from a recent live chat attempting to shed light on the questions: “Can Science Spending Survive Partisan Politics?” The panelists outline some good points for scientists to push so that both sides of Congress can agree with. For example to present translatable research or to show that long term investments lead to information like monitoring weather systems can make the difference in evacuation efforts.

But overall the conversation was just speculation. Without knowing (yet) the Administration’s budget requests or (ever knowing) the motives of Congress, we cannot know for sure how science will do in 2013.

The answer to the concluding question is very poignant:

As long as the Federal Govt is going to spend in excess of $130 billion on research and development annually, and taxpayers will be the ultimate source of that money, politics will be an inherent part of the science funding enterprise.

Science will always be a part of politics. The goal is to find a system where both are able to most efficiently benefit each other.


Listen to Rep Price and Rep Holt!

It is exciting to read the efforts of many who are trying to make sure that the super committee is wise in what they cut and are aware that science is an important investment.

Here are a few important links to take a look at:

The two best Congressmen leading the effort to continue to fund science

You can take action here, solidarity with other Grad Students

But, basically I wanted to write a note here saying that I will now be buckling down to work on the data mtg. I will be back briefly for my very first NASATweetup and the MSL launch. Hopefully I will also write a post about that amazing experience of being present at the Atlas V launch of the next Mars Rover. (I am especially excited to learn how NASA can get ordinary people so excited and involved in their program. Their outreach is truly and example for all science fields. I ask this same question all the time: why is chemistry not more popular?! Great post by SeeArrOh.)

What would convince you that funding science is worthwhile?

Now that we are seeing some of the final FY 2012 appropriations being passed in both the House and Senate, I thought that it would be good to do a budget post. There were many Calls For Action last week to scientists, encouraging them to call/write to their Representative in the Senate to support the FY 2012 NSF budget at a level of little over $6.8 billion. I believe that the Senate did pass a series of appropriations that included the FY 2012 NSF budget, by a vote of 69 to 30.This year, perhaps more than any other year, there has been an incredible amount of discussion surrounding the Federal Budget. But I do not want to go into rehashing those events.Federal Funding for scientific agencies fill a significant detriment in the country as more and more companies are cutting their R&D departments. The Federal Government has the ability to encourage more R&D by creating aspiring mandates, such as the Fuel Efficiency Standards  announced in July in which current technology will not reach those goals, requiring companies to be innovative in order to comply with the mandates.  The funding appropriated to agencies in turn provide the Federal Government with the knowledge and research for feasible and high-achieving mandates that can in turn develop new markets and encourage innovation. Larger R&D departments = more jobs, better economy.A part of me wonders, why it is not an easy decision to continue to fund agencies like the NSF? $6.8 billion sounds like a lot of money, but it only comes out to, on average, $22/year/person. Is it the need to know what scientists are using the funds for? Does the tax-payer not want to support appropriations to these agencies because there is no accountability? I realize that this past spring, when the Senate report, The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscopecame out, much of the media focused on the “absurdity” of robots folding laundry. But in that anecdote they failed to recognize the importance of studying computer simulated unordered tasks. The report fails to understand the process of science and its outcomes. The reason that I bring this report up is that although the report claims that a lack of accountability justifies cutting the agency’s budget, it is not clear to me that more accountability would fix the problem. Thus, I want to ask: would the public like access to publications as a means of accountability?Currently, a majority of peer-reviewed research is published in journals that require a license for access. These licenses are very expensive and institutions pay a significant amount of money for access to these publications. Currently, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has put out a call for input on allowing public-access to publications and it will be very interesting to see the responses.

In case you haven’t seen this yet: Jon Stewart parody, what are we scientists up to?! 🙂

What are some other means to better illustrate that funds towards scientific research is worthwhile?

Excellent post in Science Progress: In defense of the NSF

*edit 11.09.11: New initiative unveiled by NSF that will allow some proposals that will not go through the traditional review process. This new initiative is perhaps a means to address Congress’ criticism of NSF not funding “transformative research”? CREATIV 




What is a mechanism?

Here is a “links and will get back to these in more detail soon” post!

The month of June disappeared incredibly fast…

A lab-mate of mine showed me this site today and basically, we need more websites like this to help students learn how to solving mechanisms! Even if you haven’t taken an organic chemistry course, but are curious about what organic chemists think about when we talk about “mechanisms”. I think that this website would still be a great way to pick up what a mechanism might be about! (although, an understanding of functional group and basic rules about electron pushing is needed, but nothing that perhaps quick google search can’t help you with!)

Named Organic Reactions: An Interactive Guide
this is definitely excellent work by Matthew Smith and Chloe Yu at the University of Oxford.

I would also like to bring your attention to a couple of organic mechanisms on Wikipedia that now have animations! Ritter Reaction and Appel Reaction.

A few other things that came out last week or in the past couple of weeks or actually perhaps this past month that I have been interested in:

A new initiative out of the White House: Materials Genome Initiative. This combines the advantages in computational modeling with experimental tools to decrease the time for materials to move from lab to market. It is meant to create a new culture of a more cohesive field of Materials Engineering so that predicative models can be more accurate and resonate with experimental results. It is exciting to have this new era of materials development.

House passes H.R. 1249, the America Invents Act. Hopefully this will revamp the patent system so that the patent process is no longer a barrier and a burden to go through. Something that I am interested in learning more about is the process of tech transfer. To get a better understanding for the process of moving findings in to lab out to the consumer.

Green Driving

Prius power On Wednesday, the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, Heather Zichal, gave her support for Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn)’s  Electric Vehicles Bill (S. 948), saying that it could be a means for moving and generating bipartisan energy legislation. Although it may seem like going electric is a win for the environment, the push for more electric cars may reduce our dependence on fuel but it will not necessarily decrease our carbon footprint.

As we are look to develop and deploy plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), there are emissions associated to the additional electricity that will be needed for the vehicles. Therefore, what is also needed is a new policy for the power sector to be able to supply low-carbon emission electricity. I was happy to see, also at the start of this week, a white paper released by the Brookings Institution that outlines a proposal for the National Clean Energy Standard that encourages power distributors to adopt, buy or generate their own power through a variety of low-emissions technology in order to meet the outlined standard. This type of technology-neutral approach is interesting and perhaps much more palatable than cap and trade because the system would, for example, allow for a coal plant to be rewarded if it was able to outfit itself with carbon capture technology or any other means to increase its efficiency.

Another means in which electric cars have an impact on our environment through means we may not realize are the battery materials in electric cars. There have been several studies published in Environmental Science and Technology journal assessing the life-cycle of the batteries in plug-in hybrid vehicles and battery electric vehicles. Most recently, Ander Hammer StrØmman from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) published such a paper looking generally at Lithium-Ion and Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries (NiMH) (currently the type of battery in the Toyota Prius in the US). This study is unique in that the authors focus their comparitive unit on the amount of energy charged and then discharged by the battery – eliminating factors such as powertrain and driving cycle that is normally assumed when the unit is driving distance or range – thereby solely looking at the environmental impact of the battery.The authors found that with the exception of ozone depletion potential, Nickel Metal Hydride battery had the highest environmental impact. They rationalize that the greater efficiency of the Li-ion attributes to its lower environmental impact, with 2-3 times more storage over its lifetime. In addition, Li-ion batteries uses earth abundant materials. However, where the greatest technological improvement is needed is in the manufacturing energy requirements; for all three batteries that accounted for 97% of the ozone depletion/global warming potential.

It is a great start to want to widely deploy electric vehicles as they do have the potential to decrease emissions. However, policy may want to focus not just on the emissions of the vehicle when consumers are driving and charging but also include the environmental impact during the vehicles entire life cycle. I have only focused specifically on the battery component as that is where I see the most chemistry. But there are a number of aspects that can be improved in order for these green vehicles to be as green as they can be.

Field Emission SEM of Ni-Co-Mn Hydroxide
Image taken by Argonne scientist improving Li-ion battery technology. Images like this help to better understand what is going on at the nanoscale in order to develop new materials.

Taste used to be a laboratory characterization technique

This is my guinea pig, Oreo

In April, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D – NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S.847), this act is a reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). As many environmental laws have been modernized to keep up with advances in science and technology, it is time that this was done for TSCA. TSCA has been incredibly limiting and makes it difficult for the EPA to regulate chemicals. This new act does not necessarily make it any easier, but it is a start to reform legislation that is very out of date. Regulations of chemicals is a very difficult task because there are chemicals everywhere, from the neodymium magnets in your headphones to the mercury in fluorescent lighting; but aside from the magnitude of the task, I do applaud the efforts of Senator Lautenberg, Congressmen Waxman and Rush. There are many chemicals that are important to our daily lives but some do have a harmful side effects depending on the exposure amount, form (ex: the drug thalidomide), complexing potential and many other factors. An attempt to reform TSCA is a good idea as it is important for both for the future of human health and the environment to find and remove chemicals that are toxic and hurting the environment.

The new act now places industry to be responsible for proving the safety of a chemical before it can go on the market. But a few concerns that I have with this are: what are the incentives for the chemical industry to do so according the health standards that will be laid out? Are there consequences when chemicals are not vetted correctly? I am especially glad that the chemical industry is, in general, in support of this act; however, I also realize that safety research is complex (as in all science, it is difficult to tease out the exact cause when not all factors can be accounted for) and not necessarily economically valuable for the time and resources it consumes.  So how do we ensure that they will be willing to give the right safety data to EPA?

Additionally in the Safe Chemicals Act, there will be open access to chemical information, in establishing a public database of chemical information. Here, I fear that just access to data is not enough. Perhaps along with the public disclosure of safety information is a reform in the format and presentation of the information. We want the information to be interpreted correctly, so that important chemicals will not be removed due to a misunderstanding by the masses. There should be a new system for presenting safety data (very different than the current MSDS data). I see a similar transition to how we have revamped presenting the nutrition information so that the general public are made aware of the sugar intake they are consuming in a 1.9 oz cup of cereal (both with and without milk).

My favorite part of this new legislation is that it will finally bring forward the necessity for chemical industries to think greener. The Safe Chemicals Act will create grant programs and research centers that will investigate and develop safe chemical alternatives. But what is important is that we are not only finding these chemicals but in the bill there is a means to quickly review and put to use green chemicals that have been adequately tested.

This is a good start. There is a lot of work to do. EPA and industries will need a lot of help. Here’s an infographic to give you an idea for how many chemicals are out there.

Note about title: The title is not meant to indicate that I am advocating the need to implement taste in our analysis to insure safe chemicals, but more of a “can you believe that?!”. Talk about not wanting to be a guinea pig. Then, if you were a scientist, you were a guinea pig.