Science funding fails to share building's vision

The cutting-edge Academy of Arts and Sciences that opens in San Francisco this weekend is at odds with America's slack approach to science these days. I visited the amazing building in March.

A few weeks ago I stood on the "living roof" at San Francisco's remodelled Academy of Arts and Sciences, fascinated by a glimpse into the future of museums and wondering whether I have been too hard in the past, despairing at America's waning commitment to science and innovation.

The roof seems certain to become yet another icon for this remarkable, visionary city, drawing visitors from around the world and challenging similar institutions to match its green endeavour. It is a series of mounds, reminiscent of JRR Tolkein's Hobbiton, covered with nine species of Californian natives - 1.7 million plants in all. It's the world's biggest sustainable roof, and the plants chosen ensure it will be home to both butterflies and birds. What stops the soil from simply sliding off the roof in heavy rains? A grid of "bio-trays" made from coconut husks, in which all those natives, including poppies and strawberries, are planted. But that's only the start of the smart, practical thinking on display here.

The shape of the mounds draws cool air through openings into the museum below which, thanks to such clever design, doesn't need any ventilation systems in its public spaces. When the Academy reopens in September, visitors will be able to walk through this unique combination of aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and research facility (with around 100 scientists on staff) comfortable with both the building's temperature and its small carbon footprint. They will see alligators in a swamp, the world's deepest coral display and four stories of diverse rainforests, from Borneo on the top floor to the flooded Amazon in the basement. And if you're worried about what happens to those openings in the ceiling when it starts to rain, a weather station set among the roof-top garden means they close automatically when a storm is approaching.

It's the impressive kind of display you might expect from a state, and a country, that has grown prosperous and powerful thanks in large part to its scientific leadership of the world, and it made me want to check again the state of science in America.

Sadly, the Academy's commitment to innovation is at odds with the US government. There had been hopes as late as the second half of last year that the Bush administration would finally put the dollars behind its 2006 promise to double federal funding on basic research within 10 years. Those hopes were dashed late last year, victims of the budget wrangle between the White House and Congress.

"As a result," reports Kei Koizumi of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "the federal investment in research and development (R&D) in FY 2008 would decline dramatically from earlier congressional plans."

For example, an expected 15% increase to the department of energy's science budget shrank to just 2.6%. Koizumi adds: "Federal funding for basic and applied research would decline in real terms for the fourth year in a row."

What does "in real terms" mean in this instance? In 2008 it means an increase in R&D funding of 1.2%, about half the rate of inflation. Allowing for the impact of inflation since 2004, it amounts to a 5.4% cut to research spending in Bush's second term. Now that's just dumb.

Koizumi's thorough analysis of the 2008 science budget makes bleak reading, summed up in his headline "Congress wraps up another disappointing year for federal R&D funding."

In an email to me, Koizumi says: "The science community is still in shock about the 2008 outcomes." In practical terms, for example, the department of energy cancelled this year's contribution to ITER, where seven countries are attempting to "demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy for peaceful purposes". There has been a 75% cut of US funding for the International Linear Collider, a giant particle accelerator that could answer physics' deepest questions, such as what dark matter really is. And two key department of energy labs, Fermilab in Illinois and the SLAC in California, have begun laying off staff or forcing them to take furloughs.

That last point is of particular concern even to Republicans, such as congresswoman Judy Biggert of Illinois. She told Reuters: "Scientists are not going to wait around to be brought back. There will definitely be a brain drain. ... It was very troublesome to me, because we have had such a focus on basic research and how important it is to American competitiveness and our long-term economic growth."

Biggert's right. This is no way for the country to remain the world's scientific leader or stave off recession. As the Center for American Progress has detailed, funding science and innovation is key to any country growing jobs, economic wealth, productivity and its competitive advantage.

The optimistic news is that President Bush is again talking the talk, even if he's not walking the walk. In January's State of the Union address he said: "To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow. So I ask the Congress to double federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences and ensure America remains the most dynamic nation on earth."

Will Bush follow through? On one hand, the early signs are encouraging. While the 2008 budget was derisory and missed all those doubling targets, Kozumi says the president's 2009 budget "proposes large increases for [the National Science Foundation, the department of energy's Office of Science and the laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology], to keep them on track to double [research funding] between 2006 and 2016".

On the other hand, initial analyses of where the money would go are worrying. It won't be spent combating climate change or on blue-skies scientific work, but on straight-out combat and sending spaceships beyond those blue-skies. "Without military R&D, federal spending would increase just 2.7% in the 2009 budget," Kozumi writes. "A large part of that increase would go to development funding for new spacecraft, so total federal research funding (including some defence research) would fall 0.5%."

In other words, take away his bombs and spaceships and Bush doesn't give two hoots about America's scientists. I'm not holding my breath in the hope that his administration will suddenly rally around and realise how vital American science is to American prosperity and pre-eminence. Instead, for encouragement, I'll look forward to the San Francisco Academy reopening in September and a new, pro-science president in the new year.


This post first appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free section on March 20, 2008. Check out what the New York Times is saying about the building.