One sentence in the editorial stands out for its painful irony:
"We seem to have reached a point where people are so overwhelmed by the problems we face, we're not sure we really need more frontiers," said Kei Koizumi of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noting that the only segments of the nation's research and development budget enjoying real growth are defense and homeland security.
Neither defense nor homeland security is interested in pushing the frontiers of knowledge. DARPA has almost completely divorced itself from long-term exploratory research, and the DoD Science and Technology budget is about to be cut by 20%. Homeland Security is primarily funding
Bin Laden detectors development of countermeasures against nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons—you know, defense.
Daniel does raise one excellent point:
How are you going to decide whether mathematics gets more funding than philosophy or computer science? What is your basis for comparison??? Fund everyone equally? What is equal...? Does philosophy requires as much funding as nuclear physics?
...but this avoids the real issue, which is that federal funding for all fundamental research is on the decline. The issue is not how to split up the pie, but rather, the fact that the pie itself seems to be disappearing. Whether or not this is the right thing to do is a matter of debate. (You can guess which side of the debate I'm on.) What's less arguable is that this decrease in funding, if not reversed, will do serious long-term damage to American scientific research.
Daniel might be okay with that. (He is, after all, Canadian.) I find it deeply troubling.
As adminstration officials like to point out, overall federal spending on research and development is actually increasing, if only slightly. Computer science faculty will still get funding, but as Suresh suggests, we'll be steered more and more towards research with direct commercial benefit, and further from high-risk basic research with the potential for much greater long-term impact.
Several things make this pill hard to swallow, but the most significant is that government funding of public universities is at an all-time low in the US. At many public universities, state money makes up less than a third of the overall budget (30% at UIUC); the rest comes from tuition, gifts, and grants. And while the grant money itself can only be used to support research, the university takes a major cut from every grant for "overhead". Faculty are under increasing pressure to bring in grants just to keep the university running, and this pressure has measurable impacts on hiring, raises, and tenure decisions. Grant pressure is not going to go away just because the funding landscape changes. If anything, given the rising attitude that universities are businesses, it's going to get worse.
It's tempting to suggest that the current cuts in basic research funding are part of a larger plan by conservatives to demonize scientists and other intellectuals for their own short-sighted political ends. But no, that would be left-wing moonbat consipracy-mongering!