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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Roger Pielke, Jr.: NCAR's NSF Budget -- The Real Facts

NCAR’s NSF Budget: The Real Facts

August 9th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

On Friday, NCAR put out a press release with the following claims:

The National Center for Atmospheric Research, like many universities and other research institutions in the United States, continues to face extraordinary budget pressures, due to the decreases in real terms in federal funding for science. Over the past five years we have had to lay off over 50 people and have lost another 60 due to attrition, totaling roughly 12% of our NSF-supported staff, because of sub-inflationary National Science Foundation funding.

Several claims in this statement are misleading and even outright wrong.

First, have there been “decreases in real terms in federal funding for science?” No, there have not. The following figure from AAAS (PDF) shows that after adjusting for inflation budgets have been flat for the past several years, but certainly not decreasing. Nondefense science budgets have actually been increasing slightly after inflation.

That federal science budgets were going to plateau (at least) was fairly obvious in 2004. At the time I wrote:

Few seem to be aware that over the past decade S&T has experienced a second golden age, at least as measured by federal funding, which has increased dramatically in recent years at a pace not seen since the 1960s. But this second golden age is now ending and the consequences for science politics and policies are likely to be profound.

Second, NCAR’s press release also asserts that with respect to the NCAR allocation from NSF:

NSF and all of the government agencies that support science have faced similar budgetary stringencies. Over the past five years we have had to make painful cuts in all areas of our scientific and facilities programs—including climate, weather, atmospheric chemistry, solar physics and certain computational and observational facilities and services. . . Unfortunately, this year we are projecting a shortfall of $8 million (about 10%) in our NSF base budget and must plan for a worst-case shortfall next year of roughly $10 million.

Sounds dire, but the actual NSF data tells a very different story. The following shows the NSF allocation to NCAR for 2005-2008 (data from the NSF Budget www site) both in current and constant 2008 dollars (adjusted using the official implicit GDP price deflator).

The data show that in real terms the NCAR 2008 budget is about $0.3 million less than it was in 2005. How this situation translates into a shortfall of some $8 million — implying a need for 2005-2008 growth to be 10% above inflation — is beyond my reckoning. Perhaps NCAR has confused a lack of growth in desired spending with a budget cut, but who knows. Similarly, how a budget that grows almost exactly with inflation results in a loss of 12% of NSF-funded NCAR employees boggles the mind. They are either giving out huge raises or moving their spending away from people to equipment (like to the annual upkeep of an earmarked airplane, but I digress). Who knows what is going on at NCAR, but the spin and misdirection are not good signs.

Link to Dr. Pielke's blog:

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