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Better Ways to Cut Science Budgets?

Imagine that you are a government advisor and Congress and the White House hands you a sequestration notice saying that you have to cut around 5 percent or so out of an agency’s science budget next year. Unlike this year, when there was little time to plan and a clean cut was made roughly across the board, you may have a bit of time and leeway to make targeted cuts.

What would you do?

Nature asks some science policy wonks to have a go at it, and they whipped up several approaches.

David Goldston, who was chief of staff of the US House Committee on Science for five years, says that while no cuts "will be easy or optimal," a "systematic approach" that involves scaling back the amount of grants that the government funds might work.

He suggests that federal funding agencies could plan to reduce the number of grant recipients and the number of graduate and postdoc students they support over a five-year period. The White House could set numerical targets for agencies to hit in advance, allowing universities and other institutions some time to prepare for fewer grants.

Such a plan would amount to the opposite of what happened just over a decade ago when the NIH budget was incrementally doubled, which Goldston says may have had some negative impacts.

Inadequate planning by NIH led to an unsustainable expansion in faculty members and "a building spree," neither of which resulted in a relative benefit for young researchers, Goldston says.

"This time, the NIH could lead the way, using recommendations from a report that it released last year that highlighted the mismatch between the number of graduate training grants and subsequent available jobs.

He also says that government could save money by doing a better job of consolidating the R&D facilities it supports.

"One possibility would be to follow the model that is used to close military bases — an independent commission makes a package of recommendations that Congress then must accept or reject, although this analogy is not exact," Goldston says.

Another approach might be to make reforms that save money, David Garman, a principal at Decker Garman Sullivan, and Armond Cohen, executive director at the Clean Air Task Force, suggest.

As an example, they look at the Department of Energy. The first step would be to conduct a rigorous review of the R&D portfolio to find duplications and to leverage strengths, and then focus R&D efforts on "the most pressing needs," they say.

Next, find a way to end "technology development" programs that do not contribute much to innovations, such as grants for ethanol-fuel pumps and natural gas refueling stations "that make nice backdrops for political 'ribbon-cutting',” but which “divert funding that could be spent in pursuit of real technological breakthroughs." This step will require "political will," which may be easier said than done.

Finally, they say, red tape could be cut, and new work should be found "for the legion of DOE micromanagers that prescribe, approve, and audit almost every transaction undertaken at a national laboratory."

Benjamin Jones, of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, says that while "cutting public science funding is a terrible idea," he begrudgingly admits that "[c]risis can breed opportunity."

He proposes that the opportunity in the sequestration would be to use scientific approaches to find out what science funding is working best.

"The real challenge is that we do not know what to cut. Unless we acquire a deeper understanding of the 'science of science', it is hard to deploy limited resources for their highest return. We need data — rigorous empirical evidence born in experimentation. We need to turn the scientific method on science institutions themselves," Jones says.

He suggests that funding institutions identify operations that they are unsure about and experiment with changes, and there are numerous such experiments that could help guide this approach.

For example, winners of NIH grants could be randomly chosen to receive either 10 percent less funding or extra amounts, and then the outcomes of these projects could be tracked over time to help determine how the dollar changes affected outcomes.