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Haste not speed

US science would benefit if Congress improved the predictability and stability of funding.

The sad saga of the US Superconducting Super Collider is well known: after spending nearly US$2 billion digging tunnels under the plains of Texas, the US Congress in 1993 cancelled the proton smasher at a stroke. Compare that to the stately funding stream that CERN, Europe’s particle-physics facility near Geneva, Switzerland, used to build the Large Hadron Collider. Each of CERN’s 20 member states contributes a specific amount of money, governed by treaty, towards a fixed five-year budget.

A report from a panel of US presidential science advisers (see page 18) points out this obvious difference: European funding is slow and steady, whereas US funding, disbursed by congressional appropriators on an annual basis, is fickle.

It is not just large facilities that struggle. The top-line budgets of US science agencies can vacillate in destructive ways. For instance, the doubling of the budgets at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1998 to 2003 induced many universities to open departments, take on postdoctoral students and construct new buildings. When the cash from the NIH suddenly dried up, the biomedical boomtown went bust.

Appropriators in Congress are unlikely ever to commit to multi-year budgets. But the advisory report makes some good suggestions for reining in the worst aspects of the US budget cycle. First, it proposes that science agencies should start planning budgets into the future, even though appropriators might well ignore them. There is a belief in Washington DC that, in being planned, a programme is put out in the open and is therefore vulnerable to the budget-cutter’s axe. That idea is incorrect. For years, the Department of Defense has been laying out budget plans in five- or six-year increments. Although appropriators do not have to abide by the plan, they are able to see the agency’s rationale. NASA also plans notional five-year budgets (although its costings for large missions are sometimes off target). The NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy should follow suit.

A second recommendation is for appropriators to match the funding levels set by authorization committees more closely. The congressional representatives on authorization committees know their agencies well, and often plan budgets in two- or three-year increments. But the exercise is largely a fiction. For instance, the most recent NSF reauthorization called for $7.8 billion in 2012, but appropriators ended up giving the agency only $7 billion.

The US way of doing things is not all wrong. There can be some advantages: an agency can pick up on a new scientific idea, propose a visionary programme and get it funded all in the space of a year — something that rarely happens in Europe, where some programmes end up being supported way past their prime. But when it comes to funding science, predictability is more of a virtue than speed, and stability better than surprise. The US scientific enterprise, dynamic as it is, could benefit if its budgets became a little more plodding.

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Haste not speed. Nature 492, 8 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/492008a

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