Economics, Energy and the Environment

No money for hard physics, but plenty for climate science

An article in the New York Times paints a somewhat sad picture regarding the government’s execution of what both left and right agree is a legitimate function: Funding basic science research that has little or no direct market potential, but which could expand the frontiers of human understanding.

Dennis Overbye points out that while American physicists won the Nobel last year with a discovery re-affirming the idea of dark matter, the U.S. won’t be launching a mission to try and actually measure it until 2024: Seven years after the European Space Agency launches an exploratory space mission. Oh, the U.S. is a partner—we’ve ponied up $20 million—but we’re junior partners in the enterprise.

Overbye points out other areas where the U.S. is walking away from hard physics research:

…the United States’ flagship lab for high-energy physics, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, known as Fermilab, had to close down its accelerator, the Tevatron, last fall, and learned from the Energy Department in March that the agency could not afford to follow through for now on a $1.3 billion underground experiment to study the spooky shape-shifting properties of particles known as neutrinos in an effort to investigate why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter.

At the same time, the department also canceled money for studies for the world’s next big physics machine, the International Linear Collider, which would be the successor to CERN’s giant collider. American scientists are resigned to the likelihood that it will not be built in the United States.

Surprisingly (heh), the New York Times article doesn’t discuss one area of science that seems to be very well funded, that being climate change. However, as a blogger at documents, we seem to have plenty of money to spend on that:

According to my calculator, that’s about $2.5 billion for climate change science and technology research in 2011 alone. And while that’s largely representative of a spending pulse under the American Recovery and Reinvestement Act of 2009 (ARRA, aka, “the stimulus”), it’s only tip of a very big iceberg. According to the CBO:

From 1998 to 2009, appropriations for agencies’ work related to climate change totaled about $99 billion (in 2009 dollars); more than a third of that sum was provided in fiscal year 2009.

So we don’t have enough money to explore the fundamental nature of the universe these days, but CBO says we have billions for:

…three primary areas of federal concern:

•    Development of technologies to reduce GHG emissions;

•    Study and monitoring of the global climate; and

•    Support for efforts of other countries to reduce GHG emissions.

As Mr. Spock might say… “fascinating.”

One thought on “No money for hard physics, but plenty for climate science

  1. Not all of us agree that funding basic research is a legitimate function of the federal government unless in furtherance of one of its enumerated powers such as defense.

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