Sequestration and Science in the U.S.

As I mentioned in  my previous post, I’d get back and discuss my research. However, that is for another post as I relay the frustrations of many American scientists, particularly those of us dependent on US government funded grants.Sequestration is the dirty word for now. As our elected officials continue to act on their own agendas, personal bias and pandering to lobbyists and special interests groups, the American people feel the heat of cuts and the busting of the American trust. Granted this has been going on for a number of years now; those old days of bipartisan cooperation in the face of a national crisis, now a distant memory. If you’re a teacher, a government employee or are in the military, if you  fly, have a child in school, if you’re are poor and receiving assistance, have an interest in the outdoors or you just participate in the economy, you’re screwed. That means just about most of us who live and breathe here in America are adversely affected. I’m complaining from the participant end, a scientist who like most scientists, derives support from a federally funded science agency.

In most cases involving federally funded grants, it goes like this for scientists, if you and your group has been awarded a grant or series of grants for specified dollar amounts, you run the risk of  working on ‘university credit’ as the promised money has yet to roll in. This may last for over a year, while the funding agency determines that your program grant is a non-essential. In some cases, it never rolls in and the university takes the loss, while having to let go essential scientists and support employees. Entire research programs have shut down and like it or not, your hard earned tax dollars that you were so proud of contributing to support cancer research, atmospheric research, or etc.. research just went down the crapper.

Then there’s the cancellation issue, the remainder of your grant is cancelled, thereby shutting down a satellite (think of a non operating piece of hardware orbiting overhead that you and millions of others paid for). And if you’re not cancelled, you have to wait for a decision as to how much you’ll actually receive of the original award.

A number of us give each other the ‘side look’ whenever we encounter a political tooting of the acronym ‘STEM’. It seems to be one of their favorite buzz words. But we all know that for a number of years as budgets cuts go, the first cuts are in ‘nonessential’ basic research funding. And just what is this cry about a shortage of scientists and engineers as Obama and others have been saying for years? If  basic research is not supported, there are no jobs for scientists and many technologists and engineers. Granted some private corporations fund research but not on the scale as the federal government. All of my laid off colleagues are now in private sector engineering, teaching or worse, looking.

And on the same note, let’s look at the under representation of women in the hard sciences, namely physics and mathematics.. I have no statistics that relay the effects of sequestration on this matter. There are some good statistics on female representation in physics maintained by but I would question the statistical significance of the effects of sequestration given that we’ve just entered these cuts. I can, however, relay two personal stories in this arena. A female PhD physicist on one of our teams does not want to write proposals anymore given that an award is either not likely to be fully funded or terminated early. She’s leaving for good, a stay at home Mom. Another friend of mine has decided to drop her doctoral research and go ABD, an academic term for ‘all but doctorate’. She’ll be teaching enthusiastically and quite well as she always does, college physics and astronomy to an ever dwindling population of students taking those courses..

We scientists who have been willing for over a hundred years now, to chuck the more lucrative and highly paid corporate jobs for the lower paid but immensely exciting and more satisfying research positions that have enabled us to contribute to society on a scale way out of proportion to our numbers. We’re OK with this. What we don’t understand is why the government is saying there is a shortage of scientists when there are no opportunities for people work in the sciences. Are they referring to  preparing young folks for corporate careers in technology and engineering? Those opportunities will dwindle as well;  technology and engineering without adequate basic science to underpin it will falter eventually.

I believe Washington really knows this matter for the most part. But then, perhaps for many there, it’s an unknown. In any case I doubt that if the players in both parties were aware, it would result in any meeting of minds to bolster the integrity of fiscal policy, reduce crippling debt and attempt to drive down the gap between rich and poor. Personal agendas seem to be more important. It looks as if sequestration is here to stay.

Well, I’ve completed my ramblings on this subject for now. What are your thoughts?


About Deborah Leddon

Vegetarian Mother and Wife, Scientist at UTD CSS, passionate about my family, animal rights, the outdoors and my violin.
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