Speed and accuracy
Despite the NSF's efforts to quickly allocate most of its ARRA monies, science itself can take more time than many other government-funded endeavors. More than $860 million in NSF awards don't expire until 2012 or later, which means that the money will be slowly trickling into the economy for at least three years. And some of the awards are as long as five years, the NSF's Topousis notes.
Many in the research field assert that this is a good way to continuously support and stabilize the economy, but it might seem counter to Obama's assertion that we should "spend our way out of this recession." And when compared with many of the other federal agencies, such as the National Endowment for the Arts (which has spent more than 40 percent of its funds—and allocated all of it), the NSF seems to be far behind the trend.
Nevertheless, the NSF has made clear its stated commitment to getting money out into the economy expeditiously. The agency approved the majority of its stimulus-backed projects by fall 2009 and warned investigators that "if after 12 months no allowable expenditures have taken place, NSF may consider reducing or terminating the award and reallocating the funds," according to the agency's Web site.
Keeping tabs on how this flood of funds is being used has proved to be a challenge for every government agency. "The NSF is generally very thoughtful about how this money goes out the door," Grifo says. As of last fall, however, some $45.3 million from NSF's Recovery Act coffers had already been awarded to institutions that had unfulfilled audit recommendations (suggesting, but not confirming, that some of the money has previously gone to groups with less-than-perfect track records). The agency's Office of the Inspector General also found that about $108 million had already gone to institutions it qualified as "deserving additional oversight."
Of the $31 billion going to science in general (to the NSF, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and others), the government's Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board estimates some $2 billion is likely to be lost to fraud. "Some of it's going to be wasted, no question," says Marc Goldwein, a senior policy analyst for the Fiscal Policy Program at the New America Foundation, nonpartisan public policy institute.
"It's very difficult to spend a lot of money very fast," Goldwein says. "Economists are saying, 'Spend it really fast,' and everyone else is saying, 'Spend it wisely.' And it's very hard to do both."
In it for the long haul
The stimulus's economic success is being measured by financial markets and unemployment reports. But aside from statements of job creation and retention, how can the economic impact of science's contributions be quantified?
"Part of the problem is that it's really hard to have good measurements of something until long after it's done," Goldwein says. And by the time most of the research projects wrap up, the stimulus funds will be long gone.
Therein lies the leap of faith in science's eventual benefits—economic and otherwise. "Some things really take five years," Goldwein says of the longer-term research grants. "It would be silly to give one year and cut them off."
Knowing that another few years of funding are on the way can also give some researchers and administrators the confidence—and ability—to boost the economy more in the short term. "If you expect money later," Goldwein notes, "it can change how you act now." For example, if a scientist knows he or she will have ample funds to run a three-year project, they can offer a three-year position to a postdoc, who might then spend his or her discretionary income more liberally. "There's some economic logic" to it, Goldwein says. "In a lot of sense, it's administrative."
Beyond boosting spending in the present, the science-bound stimulus money can be seen as a down payment for a stronger field down the road. Even if most of the jobs are going to graduate students and postdocs, "those folks come out and you have an investment in their research abilities and their increased marketability for jobs," Grifo says. "We have to look at this as lifting the intellectual boat of our whole society." She adds: "As anyone will tell you, it's hard to know where those gains get reaped down the line. That's the point of basic research."
Matthew Thomas, a professor at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at The Pennsylvania State University who is running a project funded by a $1.8-million NSF stimulus grant to study the impact of climate change on malaria and dengue fever, says most of his money is going to hiring graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Being able make the four-year-long appointments has had "short-term and immediate benefits," he says. But the rewards will continue to pay dividends into the future, he notes: "There's a longer term legacy for this research." In addition to the new information he hopes the project generates, it will also create "a cohort of trained personnel who will, themselves, [go on] to secure new positions and build their own labs."
Even as the NSF's stimulus funding continues to trickle out into the economy over the coming years, many are already concerned about a precipitous drop in momentum as federal-funded science budgets return to normal operating levels.
As Goldwein points out, however, just because Recovery Act funding drops off doesn't mean that other funding will, too. "If the economy is in good shape," he says, the extra tax revenue might be used to increase the NSF budget and create new programs.
In fact, Obama has proposed another bump to direct science funding in his 2011 budget, penciling in $7.4 billion for the NSF (an 8 percent increase over 2010's total)—although that will still be a broad stroke off from the $9.5-billion total it had to distribute in 2009. But science does not have to be entirely government dependent, Goldwein says. With an uptick in the national economy, he notes, "hopefully there will be ample private funds" to pick up what the government cannot or will not.