By Tom Katsouleas
Tom Katsouleas is Dean of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering. He serves as Chair of the National Academy of Engineering's Advisory Committee on Engineering Grand Challenges for the 21st Century.
Facing the threat of sequestration and declining appropriations, federal science funding agencies from the NIH to NSF and DoD and others are considering how to deal with such downturns. Administrative staff and boards are convening and some of the early suggestions are worrisome. As an example, one council member at an institute of the NIH contemplating a 10% budget cut bemoaned the fact that this would more than decimate any new proposals they could fund in the coming year. The NSF yesterday sent a message to all university presidents with the same message; namely that under sequestration they would reduce the number of new science awards by 1,000.
The rationale they were locked into was the same one that gets poker players into trouble chasing an inside straight. They viewed the prior commitments as something they were "committed" to - in just the way the poker player sees his bets as committing him. One NIH Institute Advisory Council member told me they "can't" cut existing programs because the scope of work agreed to in the grant could not be fully completed if they did. That means the entire burden of budget cuts falls to new projects and new ideas.
Engineers view the problem differently -- as a multi-variable optimization problem. In this case, what needs to be optimized is the overall mission and core values of the institution.
In this case, there is an aspect of the mission to ensure not only the quality and value of current science but the nurturing of new ideas and a new cadre of investigators that will be critical to the future. Taken in this context, one has to weigh the cost of prematurely ending a protocol and possibly jeopardizing five years of citizen investment in a current research discovery against killing off career paths and future ideas for generations to come - just like a poker player needs to weigh the odds of his hand becoming a winner with more bets. But unlike poker players, agencies have more options than just calling or folding; in many cases, the scope of work could be reduced 10% without completely eliminating the value of the entire project.
To see why this sort of analysis is so important, consider the following oversimplified model. If all grants are currently funded for five years, then 20% of the budget is in each year. If no existing grants are cut, then the 10% cut must fall entirely on the new grants which were 20% of the budget, thus reducing them by half to roughly 10% of the budget. This would reduce the pay line on already ridiculously low success rates by a factor of two -- NIH could go from an 18% success rate to 9%, cutting out half or more of new investigators and likely forcing them into other career paths, and almost certainly undermining US competitiveness in innovation, not to mention health care.
More broadly, as possible cliffs approach, we encourage the President, Congress and every administrative body confronting them to avoid the natural tendency to protect certain elements as "can't touch" and to evaluate all the tradeoffs in light of the highest priorities and overall mission of the institutions involved. Furthermore, Congress and others should avoid micromanaging how to implement the cuts and let the agencies evaluate what best suits their mission.
No matter how well intentioned (and politically appealing), protecting individual values in isolation of the consequence to other values can never be as optimal as making decisions with the full system in view and on the table. There are too many things we can't imagine doing, until we see the cost of not doing them.
This material published courtesy of Singularity University.