RECOVERING WITH RESEARCH: Funding-hungry agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, received a welcome bonus with the economic stimulus bill last year. It has allowed them to back a wealth of research endeavors, but will the payout to the economy be as quick? Image: ISTOCKPHOTO/DAMALONEY
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So far, $9.3 million for researchers building robotic bees, $1.3 million to hunt for viruses that infect single-celled organisms, and $845,000 to study past climate change in Russia has been doled out. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has been able to fund thousands of new research projects with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), aka the economic stimulus package, which was passed a year ago today.
But has this money been as much of a boon to the economy has it has been to science?
When advocating for the bill last January, President Obama called for "investing in the science, research and technology that will lead to new medical breakthroughs, new discoveries and entirely new industries." Progress would not come immediately, he warned, but when he signed the bill, an unprecedented influx of funds funneled to agencies flush with project proposals but lacking the cash to back them. This money set the grant-giving gears in motion, but the research pipeline itself can be prodigiously long.
Although barely a pipette drop of the full $787-billion federal stimulus plan, the NSF's $3-billion portion of the package represented an almost 50 percent boost for its 2009 $6.5-billion budget. "That investment of $3 billion will have an immediate impact on investigators, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, and teachers throughout the nation," the agency asserted on its Web site.
Indeed, in the past year, the NSF has allocated some $2.5 billion of its stimulus share, adding 4,599 research-based projects (in addition to facility improvements and educational awards) to its list of recipients.
Only about $136 million of that money has been spent, however. That's about 4.5 percent, which puts the NSF second to last among federal agencies in the percentage of stimulus allocation expended. (The most expeditious spenders include the Social Security Administration and the Railroad Retirement Board, which have shelled out about 88 and 91 percent respectively, and the slowest has been the Department of the Treasury, having spent about 3.2 percent of its $89 billion.)
So where is all of the NSF's stimulus money? It is in university and institutional bank accounts, from which funded researchers will gradually withdraw funds over the duration of multiyear grants and awards to pay for equipment and staff. "The NSF has obligated that money, and it's sitting in the accounts of the awardees," explains Dana Topousis, an NSF spokesperson.
Picking the winners
But before even a single beaker could be bought, the NSF—a funding agency—had to decide which projects would get a piece of the new capital.
"NSF has never had enough money," says Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist and director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. So, although the funds have been a booster for science, it and many other agencies are not set up to handle this processing load. "It's just hard to make the federal bureaucracy move fast," she says.
Between 2003 and 2008 the NSF was able to fund only about a quarter of the research proposals it received. But with the 2009 stimulus funds, that total reached 32 percent (about what it had been with its standard operating budget in 2000) even though the numbers of proposals had increased by thousands.
Last year, the NSF received more than 45,200 proposals, so when the stimulus bill was passed, program officers gave another look to deserving proposals they had not previously had the resources to fund. Some 80 percent of stimulus-backed awards went to projects that had been submitted prior to the act. By contrast, the National Institutes of Health and many other agencies put out a call for new proposals.
NSF staffers made an effort to support investigators who had not previously been granted received awards, funding 2,352 new researchers—about a third of them through the ARRA. But amidst fear of fraud and waste, the agency also had to work carefully to pick proposals that would make wise use of the money. To make all these assessments, NSF staff members worked "around the clock" last summer to select the new awardees, the agency's Topousis says.
Although the agency did not hire extra workers to assess all of the proposals on the receiving end, creating more jobs in the science community was a top priority. "Most of our awards are saving jobs—or creating jobs for graduate and postdoc students," Topousis says.
Some critics have argued that the glut of temporary, low-level research positions in academia have created an impasse in academic institutions, where few can break through to tenure-track jobs in which they can obtain big research grants and run their own laboratories. But others note that in the short term, these positions are helping to translate money for science into a cash injection for the economy—and fast.
"It already does have the immediate impact to attract and hire staff," says Amy Pienta, an associate research scientist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who is using an ARRA-funded NSF grant to evaluate the stimulus's impact on the social sciences. Most of the awards may not be big enough to fund senior-level positions, she says, but many of them will "certainly" help hire "people who are on the front lines of a lot of the work—on data collection, data analysis." She offers as an example her own project, which will hire someone to do computer programming. "We're able to advertise in the community," she says. "That's pretty immediate."
The bottom line is that "universities hire," Grifo says. And the money—whether it creates a new full-time staff position or a part-time student opportunity—will be going directly to people "who are going to spend it to live," Grifo says. "They're using that money immediately to pay their bills." She adds: "With graduate research fellowships in particular…it goes out there quickly."
Not all of the money will stay inside of ivory tower walls. A good chunk of NSF's Recovery Act funds (some $354 million) is going directly to construction expenses for labs and research vessels. So those funds will funnel out more quickly, much like other government construction contracts, to pay for labor and materials.