Science Funding

Over the last many years, it has felt like science funding has decreased pretty dramatically. I wanted to see if this was the case, so I looked at the budgets of NASA and the National Science Foundation over the last 15 year.  It is somewhat interesting, although the numbers don’t convey the total story.

First, let’s look at the National Science Foundation (NSF), since this is a happier story. Here is the budget from 2000-2015 for NSF:


The black line shows the actual budget, while the red line shows a 3% annual adjustment to put the numbers into 2015 dollars (this is an approximation), and the dotted line shows the 2015 budget number. There are a few take aways here:

1. From about 2005 to 2015, the budget has increased a bit and then decreased a bit.  This was due to the stimulus package, most likely.  Without that, the budget would have been roughly increasing by 3% annually, keeping a “neutral” profile (i.e., flat red line).

2. 2003 and 2004 were pretty bad years for NSF. I am not quite sure why.  Maybe a war or two?

3. Between 2000 and 2005, the NSF budget increased by almost 25%.  That is a pretty big win!  Around this time there was talk of doubling the NSF budget.  That obviously didn’t happen, but a 25% increase is very nice!

Another way to look at the budget is by the percentage of the total US budget:


This is an interesting way of looking at it, since it shows how much of an importance we are placing on NSF as part of the budget.  Interestingly, while NSF had an overall growth from 2000 to 2005, the percentage of the US budget stayed about the same (about 0.22%). From 2005 to 2008, the NSF didn’t do so well – the percentage of the budget fell to about 18%.  Since then it has stayed at about a constant level of just under 20%. This sort of says that we decreased the importance of science from 2005 to 2008, but have kept it at roughly the same level of importance since that time.

NASA, on the other hand, has not done nearly as well.  NASA has suffered.

This is the NASA budget from 2000-2015:


This plot shows that NASA’s budget increased at about a 3% rate from 2000-2010, remaining “neutral” when adjusted for inflation.  This sounds like good news, but there is a somewhat hidden story here.  At some point in Bush’s presidency, he called for NASA to go back to the moon.  That was a bold move, which took a bunch of money from the science directorates and put it into the manned spaceflight programs.  We could definitely have an argument about whether NASA should be doing science or manned programs, but as a scientist, you can imagine that I would prefer to have a significant investment in science.

The very bad thing about this plot is the drop in funding from 2010 to 2013.  In 2015 dollars, this was roughly a $4B drop, which is roughly 20%.  That hurts.  For the last 3 years, the budget has remained pretty flat in terms of 2015 dollars.

Now, let’s look at it in terms of percentage of the US budget:


From 2000 to 2015, the percentage has decreased from 0.75% to about .48%, a drop of 36%.  So, as the US budget grew, NASA’s budget grew at a significantly slower rate, then dropped. So, the importance of NASA in the US has decreased dramatically in the last 15 year. That, in my opinion, is very sad.

For scientists who get funding from NASA, there is even worse news in the form of the James Webb Telescope.  This is the Hubble replacement with a price tag of about $8B.  It has ballooned in cost, and is now considered on par with the four science directorates (Earth Science, Planetary, Astrophysics and Heliophysics).  In other words, the budgets of the 4 directorates have basically decreased significantly in order to make room for the James Webb Telescope.  This means that as the overall NASA budget has decreased, the directorate budgets have decreased even more to pay for the telescope. (I am not knocking the need for a Hubble replacement, but the cost has gotten a wee bit out of hand.)

In the Heliophysics directorate, we have had a few missions recently that have also ballooned in cost (SDO, MMS, and SPP) and are driving science funding down even more. These are missions that were supposed to be less than a billion dollars each, but for one reason or another, they ballooned to over a billion dollars.

So, what has resulted.  That can be easily shown in a little plot that NASA provided in one of it’s overviews:


Back in 2007, when you wrote a proposal, you had about a 35% chance of winning the grant.  So, to win a single grant, you needed to write, statistically, about 3 proposals.  In 2013, the proposal success rate had dropped to 18%.  In order to win a proposal, you now need to (statistically) write more than 5 proposals.  There are some programs in which the success rate is 10%.  I have served on panels in which we were reviewing more than 20 proposals and we were told that at most 2 would be selected.  That sucks.

This has affected NSF also.  If you can’t get funding from NASA, you submit proposals to NSF, putting pressure on them.  Considering that the NSF budget is less than half of NASA’s budget, the pressure ramped up very quickly.  Success rates there have also dropped.

The question really is whether we are in a new era in which science funding is decreasing in national importance, while the cost of engineering (and therefore missions) is increasing, exacerbating the problem significantly, or whether science funding is just suppressed for a short period and we are about to turn the corner.  As an eternal realist, I am not optimistic.


About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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