Science and sequestration in context


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On March 21, the House accepted the continuing resolution proposed by the Senate for the year 2013. This continuing resolution will fund everything in the federal government though September of this year, and includes the cuts imposed on March 1 by sequestration.

As it always does, the journal Science did a specific analysis of the science portion of this budget bill. As usual, they looked only at the trees, not the forest, comparing the budget changes up or down for the 2012 and 2013 years only, noting how those changes will impact each agency’s programs. As usual, Science also took the side for more federal spending, assuming that in each case any cut was sure to cause significant harm to the nation’s ability to do cutting edge science.

I like to take a wider and deeper view. Below is a chart showing how the budgets for these agencies have changed since 2008. They give a much clearer perspective of the consequences of sequestration and the cuts, if any, imposed by Congress on these science agencies.

The 2013 continuing resolution in context

Unfortunately, I do not have complete numbers for the Science Office at the Department of Energy. Nonetheless, you can see that the 2013 budget for all these agencies is not significantly different from the budgets they received in 2008. In fact, except for NASA, they have all received an increase compared to 2008. In NASA’s case, the 2013 continuing resolution instead brought the agency back to numbers it received back in 2006, when it got $16.5 billion.

None of these numbers are a disaster for any of these science agencies. In 2008 American science was not starved for cash. If anything, in 2008 it was apparent that there was an enormous amount of waste in all these agencies, and that much of the money being spent then was being poorly spent, producing little of great value.

In the case of NASA specifically I can tell you that most of the increase in the agency’s budget since 2006 was a complete waste. In 2006 the agency’s budget was $16.5. The next year Congress gave the agency a budget boost of $1 billion to $17.5 billion, which established a much higher baseline for NASA’s budget until this year. That extra billion-plus per year had been added in order to help fund and build the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets as part of the Bush-proposed Constellation program.

And what have we gotten for that extra $1 billion or more per year? Nothing. Constellation was cancelled unceremoniously by the Obama administration in 2009, before anything was built and after more than $9 billion total had been spent. Though the Space Launch System (SLS) — mandated by Congress since 2010 — includes many of Constellation’s designs, it really is a completely new rocket system, requiring completely new funding to get designed from scratch.

Overall, what these budget numbers really tell us is that federal spending continues to run out-of-control, and that there is very little desire in Congress to rein it in. Instead, the politicians from both parties are trying to somehow make believe the debt does not exist, that the federal government isn’t spending 40% more than it takes in, and that they can maintain the status quo and nothing will go wrong.

They are behaving exactly as NASA did in 1985 and 2002, prior to both the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents. In both cases, management in NASA refused to deal with a serious engineering problem. Instead, management made believe the problem wasn’t there.

But the problem was there. O-rings in the solid rocket booster were freezing up in cold weather, and foam was falling off the shuttle during launch. By refusing to deal with these engineering facts, NASA management guaranteed that two shuttles and their crews would be lost.

Congress is now doing the same. I fear we will lose a lot more than a mere space shuttle, however, when the federal debt finally brings us all down in flames.

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11 comments

  • jwing

    If this were done by a publicly traded corporation every executive and board member would be fired and face crimminal charges for malfeasance and dereliction of duty at the very least.

    Wake up, America,…we have met the enemy and the emeny is the progressive left masquerading as hard working, patriotic government service officials, Obama’s appointees, cabinet members and Obama himself.

    What they are getting away with this very moment to this country, our worst enemies only dreamed about doing.

    Where is the Republican outrage????? silence…………………………………………………………

  • Patrick Ritchie

    I wholeheartedly endorse this method of reasoning. But if you’re going to compare budgets of past years shouldn’t you use inflation adjusted dollars?

    Using data from:

    http://inflationdata.com/inflation/Inflation_Rate/HistoricalInflation.aspx

    The 2008 amounts should be increased by 10.7% to get the amount in 2013 dollars. This changes your story somewhat, using constant dollars all agencies except NOAA end up with lower amounts in 2013 than 2008.

    2008 amounts in 2013 dollars.

    NIH 32,324
    NSF 6,783
    NOAA 4,414
    NASA 19,264

    Which gives the following increases / decreases for 2013

    NIH -9% (-2,874)
    NSF -5% (-309)
    NOAA +18% (+786)
    NASA -12% (-2,297)

  • I have no objection to adding inflation to the figures, but I don’t think in this case it makes that much difference. All in all, these agencies are still getting a whole lot of money in amounts that only a few years ago was considered more than sufficient, despite the so-called cuts that sequestration supposedly imposed.

  • Pzatchok

    If they are like any other government agency they run under the assumption
    ‘If we don’t spend it this year our budget will be cut and we will not get it next year.’

    So at the end of the year all those little items a department wanted would be ordered. New printers and extra accoutrements for each member. New radios even though the old ones worked fine. Anything from a new department vehicle down to extra cash for a company party someplace nice.
    You don’t think all those Vegas conventions were the only parties they had. Heck. At the last minute our end of year party schedule would be changed and things added. Like changing from hamburgers and hot dogs and a local picnic to catered steak and shrimp.

    Government agencies are not allowed to save any extra cash from year to year. So even if they could and did come in under budget for the year they made sure they didn’t come in under budget. Unless it couldn’t be helped they ALWAYS used exactly the amount of cash allocated to them.

    Find out what any government agency orders in the last month of the fiscal year and you will see a huge amount of ‘want’ items instead of just ‘needed’ items.

  • I’ve worked with former government employees and heard similar horror stories. One mechanic related that at the end of one fiscal year his bosses ordered new tool chests filled with high-end tools, then squirreled them away in a warehouse, just to make their expenditures as high as possible for the next budget cycle.

    I believe the problem is that bureaucracies (public or private) are motivated by negative incentives. Unless one is at the extremes of the management scale, the pressure is to acquire as many resources as possible, ‘turf building’, as a way to prove one’s worth to the organization. At the lower end, supervisors and project managers, one is rewarded for efficient resource use through access to more challenging assignments, or a year-end bonus. At the upper end, the executive suite, stockholders demand a return on investment. At any rate, in the private sector, the governing factor is accountability to stakeholders. Screw up with someone else’s money, and you may find yourself on the street. Screw up badly enough, and you may end up in jail.

    There is no such accountability in the public sector. The measure for success, especially in the entitlement departments, seems to be how many ‘customers’ can be ‘served’. Last year the USDA homepage had ’46 million on SNAP’ splashed across the top (they don’t anymore), as if that was something to be proud of. I’ve never worked in the public sector, but I imagine that it doesn’t take too long to think of funding as ‘government’ money, rather than funds collected or borrowed. I’d like to see a crowd shot in every government manager’s office with the caption: “Your department’s funding was forcibly taken from these people.”

  • Ryan

    The 2013 budget is lower than the 2003 budget.

    http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/fy2013/health13pTBL.pdf

    My guess is that there was a significant “Anthrax” funding bump in 2003 and then maybe a stimulus and “Preventive Care Fund” (Obamacare) bump in 2009, (seems plausible to me).

    Anyway, the cuts aren’t as much at issue as are the timelines. While the general discussion is focusing on 5% cuts to an annual budget number, they’re being implemented inside of 6 months which makes a 5% annual cut more like a 10% actual cut for the time frame it’s compressed in to.

  • Patrick Ritchie

    I agree with your overall point: the 2013 budget is not catastrophic. But the data indicates that there *are cuts* in funding relative to 2008 on an inflation adjusted basis.

    At the end of the day I find this is a much less important than the points you made about how the money is actually spent. Specifically the boondoggle of Constellation -> SLS. Hopefully the other agencies fare better, but I doubt they do.

  • Patrick Ritchie

    I was somewhat stunned to see the budget line that increased the most:

    Office of the Director: 10 year average 301.1%

    300% ??!!

    It’s interesting to note the year it increased the most as well:

    2006 (536)-> 2007 (1140)

  • I think that these inflation numbers make the cuts appear larger than what really happened. Much of the inflation in the past five years has been confined to areas such as food and services. The costs for NASA and the federal government, such as labor costs, however, have not risen significantly.

    However, all that is irrelevant. You might be right. I might be right. Neither makes that much difference. The federal government is still spending money in a haphazard and reckless way, wasting enormous amounts of capital, and no one in Congress or the White House is really willing to deal with the issue.

  • Patrick Ritchie

    Agreed, the haphazard spending is the real issue.

  • Pzatchok

    Obviously to fund the Office Of The Director everything else had to be cut.

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