It's not just General Motors

While this may seem off-topic for PT, it’s an important issue that is directly relevant to science education and research. In the midst of the current severe economic downturn, all segments of our society are feeling knock-on effects. College and university endowments have taken substantial hits. We hear about the big ones: Harvard’s $36 billion endowment taking a 25% (at least) hit, and Yale taking (at least) a similar loss. I say “at least” because a significant proportion of those endowments are invested in illiquid instruments for which pricing is at best chancy and at worst blind guesswork. The “Yale model” of endowment portfolio management has been adopted by a number of institutions, and they have to be in similar trouble.

Smaller private institutions whose operating budgets are more heavily dependent on tuition are also having significant problems. Beloit College has axed 40 positions because of a 36-student enrollment shortfall. My own institution, Kenyon College in Ohio, has suspended construction on several projects and has frozen hiring. More pain is likely to come as donors retrench and parents redirect their childrens’ college choices based more on cost and less on perceived educational advantage. And while public universities have a temporary economic advantage, that will not last as state aid is inevitably cut as a consequence of decreasing tax revenues.

The problems extend beyond that. Nature News reports that the Chicago Field Museum’s endowment has fallen by at least 36%, and it is cutting positions and reducing research support. Its unrestricted operating budget is being cut 15% and early retirement packages are being offered to 68 people, including 15% of its scientists. Neil Shubin’s position as provost has been eliminated. The same is happening elsewhere, I’m sure.

It’s tempting to imagine that with the massive amounts of federal bailout money already poured into financial institutions and the prospect of even more massive amounts being spent in an economic stimulus package under the incoming Obama administration, there will be a return to the good old days of the 1990s and early 2000s sometime in the not-too-far-distant future. I think that’s a fool’s hope. Recent U.S. economic growth has been built on a string of bubbles over the last two decades, the most recent the real estate and mortgage debt bubble, and I do not believe that there is the prospect of another stretch of bubble-based growth in the foreseeable future. If the last two decades are interpreted as “normality,” we will not return to normality for years, if not decades. The good times will not roll again in my lifetime.

As a consequence we need to carefully think through how we will fund both science education and basic scientific research in a considerably straitened economic context. It is not clear to me when we will have once again have the resources that we have had for the last several decades. Nor is it clear how our research and educational institutions will adapt without cutting to the bone. But we need to think about it and talk about it, and scientists and science supporters must be actively and effectively involved in that conversation. We can’t sit back and passively hope for better times.

Oh, and Happy Monkey to all.