Chris Mooney on NSF funding

July 21, 2009 • 6:47 am

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:

NSF Complete budget history current dollars

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:

NSF constant 2003 dollars

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).

26 thoughts on “Chris Mooney on NSF funding

  1. Come on, it’s the Wooffington Post.
    What do you expect? Accuracy?
    At least he doesn’t resort to his usual trick of blaming everything on those nasty uppity atheists.
    The twins are strangely quiet on Janet Stemwedels latest piece about their book.
    – despite praising her previous posts on the subject. Janet points out the very obvious problem at the root of the divide between the faitheists and the uppities – namely the premise that there is one agreed goal for scientists and one obvious plan we should be using to achieve this singular objective.
    Now this point has been made from the beginning by many of those on the non-accomodationist side of the debate, but has been entirely ignored by the faitheists. It will be interesting to see how it is addressed when coming from a commentator previously praised as being ‘thoughtful’ and neutral.

    1. Peter, I was referring specifically to Janets post of last Friday where she finds serious fault with the basic framing science gameplan rather then the two earlier more positive review posts. I haven’t seen any reply to the final one yet.

      1. Sigmund,

        I think the point peter was making is that even in the “positive review”s as you call them, Janet was making the same negative criticisms that PZ and Ophelia were. The Colgate Twins just picked the other parts of the reviews. It’s not like her finding fault with their book is only reflected in her Friday post.

  2. While the $12 billion may be an innocent mistake, it’s hard to believe Mooney wouldn’t have had a reason to look up the real figures for the NSF and NIH budgets at any point in writing his books or articles. Surely, a man whose central thesis is based on the assumption that science plays less of a role in society today than 40 years ago would have done the research to back up that assumption, right? If not, he’s a shitty journalist. If he has, he’s disingenuous, as I don’t see how one could write an article entitled “The American science deficit” without, oh, say, maybe noting at least parenthetically that governmental funding for science has actually skyrocketed in the decades since his supposed Golden Age. Either way, he loses any vestigial shred of credibility he had after the last round of non-responses to serious criticism.

    Ultimately, it strikes me that when Mooney and co. talk about the need for “framing” the debate, what they’re really saying is that their ends justify their means, and if one believes strongly enough in one’s central thesis, it’s perfectly acceptable to overlook inconvenient facts (such as the fact that science budgets have gone up, way up, and not down) in favor of colorful rhetoric. The tragedy is that this is just about the least scientific approach one could take to the issue. No surprise if Mooney feels a need to accommodate religious belief; his own view that science has lost its central place in society appears to be strictly a matter of faith.

    1. Either way, he loses any vestigial shred of credibility he had after the last round of non-responses to serious criticism.

      I laughed at this statement, bardamu. I am sure you meant it to be humorous. If credibility had anything to do with evolution then there would be a bit more of it around.

      Unfortunately, I suspect that your last paragraph is accurate.

  3. There’s a bit of confusion: Mooney says 134 mil, and you say 34 mil.

    Mooney’s use of the word “ensnared” bothers me. The implication, it seems, is that science was free of politics in the early sixties. Rather, the intertwining or ensnaring of politics with science seems to be a constant-sometimes science is well-funded sometimes not.

    The premise to his thesis is mucked.

    1. Mooney said it increased by nearly $100 mil to $134 mil. I believe that’s where Coyne got the $34 mil figure.

    1. Mooney also seems to have forgotten the Vietnam War.

      Looking at the constant value graph there is flattening from about 1966, around about the time US involvement in Vietnam was stepped up. The US could clearly not abandon a project as prestigious as Apollo, but it seems as though there were problems with carrying on with increasing expenditure of science and fighting a war at the same time.

  4. A post I made chez Free-Ride earlier seems relevant:

    I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more about a rather obvious factor affecting the science-public relation: nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

    I take it that it’s something of a truism that science (especially physics) was showered with money and prestige after WWII because scientists were viewed as having won the war by building the bomb. Nobody wanted to reign in research that might supply even more power on the international stage.

    The Cold War, obviously continued this trend: we couldn’t fall behind the commies, so we had to take science seriously. This is the “golden age” of science acceptance that (I gather from Dr. F-R’s review) Mooney and Kirshenbaum are pining for. People were less willing to attack science because science was keeping the country safe.

    With the end of the Cold War, more people are less inclined to see science as a military necessity, and with this, they’re more willing to dismiss science when it sits uncomfortably with their political or religious views.

    So, what do people want from science? National security. You want funding for science? Tell them they’ve got to foot the bill for research to combat germ warfare.

  5. So, what do people want from science? National security.

    I’d say that’s part of it, but not the entire part. I’d say it could be summed up in three words “quality of life”. I doubt you’d have a hard time getting people to buy into supporting increases into cancer research (especially with all those Baby Boomers out there). I also doubt you’d have a hard time pitching “swine flu” vaccine development to a majority of people. The President has made food safety a priority, and with the major health scares involving food over the last couple of years, it is no surprise and hasn’t raised any eyebrows.

    Put things in terms that people understand, and show them how they’ll benefit, and I think they’ll buy into it. Then all we need to do is figure out how to maintain the peace for any reasonable length of time.

  6. Mooney again appears to show his true colors: weak thesis and even weaker research that Coyne corrects in about 10 minutes. Really Chris, you should get Kisherbaum to check your math (oh wait, she probably did). Problem with Mooney: he loves his own conclusions and ignores that little voice inside his head commonly found in the prefrontal cortex of real scientists that says ‘that doesn’t sound right…I’d better check again.’

    1. To be fair to him he has now admitted on ‘The Intersection’ that it was a typo done in error as he was in a hurry to finish the Huff Post piece.

      1. He “admitted” it rather dismissively, deep in the comments section of that post. No acknowledgement of the error up front, no change at HuffPo, either up front OR in the comments. I’m not inclined to judge him harshly on the error itself–sloppy, yes, but everyone makes mistakes, especially when on a deadline. However, this particular error has the potential to significantly influence the way his thesis is interpreted by the HuffPo readers. It’s therefore troublesome that a more prominent correction hasn’t been forthcoming. If he continues to sacrifice accuracy for impact, he’s going to alienate even more scientists than he already has.

  7. Posted a ‘Could you please give us the real numbers and remove the error from Huff post’ note to Mooney.

  8. I think that some try to show declines, or at least a plateau, in science spending by figuring it as a percentage of US GDP. Scientists pursuing grants and pro-science organizations are particularly prone to doing so.

    That way, although the absolute amount, and the amount after accounting for inflation, could go up, while the percentage of GDP going to science still remains flat, or even declines.

    Whether this has anything to do with Mooney’s claims of decline, I’m not sure. It may have, though.

    Glen Davidson

  9. “Science became ensnared with politics, first the foe of the religious right, then something to be spiked at will by the Bush administration.”

    But the enemy of science is ATHEISTS, not religious people! ! ! ! ! Everyone knows that!!! ! ! !

  10. Oh shut up, you’re just being mean. Did I say shut up? No I didn’t. *runs for cover*

    Since the US population was about 172M in 1957, the numbers suggest that funding (as best as people can estimate with changing value of currency through the years) has more or less only grown with the population. Other factors to consider include rising salaries and rising cost of research equipment. More funding would always be welcome.

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