August 12, 2010

When costs are good and benefits don't matter: science projects and government stimulus

An editorial in Nature says that "critics of US President Barack Obama have delighted in picking out projects funded by last year's $787-billion economic-stimulus package that they believe are examples of waste."
Yet the science projects, at least, have survived peer review, which tends to be a far more sceptical and rigorous vetting process than anything McCain and Coburn [apparently two such critics of Obama] are likely to provide.
However, the editorial does not provide the slightest clue that such projects are cost-effective. In fact, the editorialist seems completely unconcerned about costs. I thought this was bad enough, but then I read the following comment to the editorial:
I was myself awarded a research grant funded by the stimulus and administered through the NIH. The grant award allowed me to create 3.5 full-time research jobs and has to date resulted in the spending of nearly $100,000 US on equipment and consumable reagents. [...] I did not apply for the grant for the purpose of stimulating the economy, but the grant award both created immediate new staff jobs and resulted quickly in money being spent, and those were certainly the legislative intention of the stimulus.

From that perspective, it actually doesn't matter what science I was doing.

Brian Lazzaro
Associate Professor, Cornell University
Lazzaro, like many US politicians and voters, actually thinks that costs are good in and by themselves - although probably only as long as they are paid by taxpayers. I doubt he applies the same philosophy at home.

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