Over at The Intersection, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have been writing up a storm of pieces to publicize their book, Unscientific America. The latest is a piece in Huffington Post by Mooney that, as did the book, laments the loss of interest and activity in science since the beefing-up of American research in response to the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957. The HuffPo piece says this (my emphasis):
Launched by President Kennedy, the Apollo program was just the most prominent example of America’s dramatic investment of science in the wake of the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik. The first Earth-orbiting satellite, beeping at us from above, inspired stark competitive fears in the nation: Were we falling behind in technology? Would the Soviets fire on us from the skies, and if they tried, could we stop them?
In response, the U.S. Congress jacked up the budget of the recently formed National Science Foundation to $134 million, an increase of nearly $100 million in just one year. And that was just the beginning — NSF’s budget continued to explode in subsequent years, so that by 1962-1963 it had reached $12.2 billion. Meanwhile, Congress created NASA and passed the National Defense Education Act, providing generous funding to encourage American students to pursue careers in science and engineering.
When I read this, I thought, “Whoa! That’s a huge increase.” From about 34 million to 12.2 billion is, in fact, nearly a 350-fold increase in half a decade. That didn’t look right, especially when you know that the NSF budget for 2009 is about 6 billion dollars. Was it really twice as large 36 years ago?
Turns out it wasn’t. A brief trawl of the NSF home page yielded this graph:
It looks as though the NSF budget in 1962-1963 was between 300 and 400 million dollars: only about 2-3% of the figure Mooney cites.
Well, of course the dollar has decreased in real terms over the years, so I looked up the NSF yearly budget in constant 2003 dollars (the only figures I could find). It looks like this:
After some stagnation in the late ’60s and ’70s, then, the NSF budget appears to have grown in real terms up to the latest figures from 2003. The amount of real money given to the NSF is way, way larger now (well, at least up to 2003) than it was in 1957. There’s no indication that we’re funding science at a lower level now than we were after Sputnik.
Where did Mooney get that 12.2-billion-dollar figure? I think it comes from the total amount of money spent on R&D by the federal government, which as 10.3 billion dollars in 1962 and 12.5 billion dollars in 1963. But that is not the same thing as the NSF budget. In 1963, for example, 7.8 billion of that 12.5 billion dollars went to national defense, and a further 2.8 billion to space research and technology. Only 626 million went to “health,” and 246 million to “general science.” Comparing an NSF budget in 1958 to the total R&D budget in 1962-1963 is comparing apples and oranges.
This was almost certainly an honest mistake by Mooney. All of us screw up: the first printing of my book, for example, contained a couple of erroneous figures. But this mistake bears correcting in HuffPo, for, in light of the data above, there doesn’t seem to be a real slowdown in NSF funding compared to 1957, and no indication that there was a post-Sputnik “golden age of science” that has now vanished. In other words, I don’t see much evidence for this assertion by Mooney:
In sum, the policies and cultural changes unleashed in the wake of Sputnik shaped the course of American science for decades — and made us world leaders. But then, something went very wrong. Science budgets stopped rising and began to fall. Educational investment also declined. Science became ensnared with politics, first the foe of the religious right, then something to be spiked at will by the Bush administration.
More broadly, our culture changed vastly since the mid-twentieth century. Science became much less cool, scientists ceased to be role models, and kids aren’t rushing home anymore to fire rockets from their backyards.
Well, maybe science isn’t cool any longer (I don’t see that anyway, since model rockets have given way to dinosaurs), but it doesn’t seem to be reflected by a decline in federal budgets, in either constant or real dollars. (The NIH budget shows a substantial growth over time as well: the National Institute of General Medical Science, for example, which funds me, got 160 million dollars in 1968 and 1.95 billion dollars in 2008, roughly a twofold increase in real dollars using the consumer price index).