How to Avoid the Budget Blues: Q&A with Grant Swinger

Following is an interview with Dr. Grant Swinger, Director of the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds, who spoke with Daniel S. Greenberg, a Washington journalist. Greenberg has previously interviewed Dr. Swinger for Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.

DSG This is a tough year for the federal research budget. It may be up a bit here and there in current dollars, but in constant dollars, it doesn’t look so good for NIH and many other funding agencies.

GS No, no. Whatever the budget, there’s plenty for those who recognize the opportunities. We’ve seen the issues and funding opportunities come and go. Poverty, drugs, crime. Auto safety. Arms control. Domestic violence. Public understanding of science. Computer literacy. Competitiveness. And don’t forget the Third World — where did that one go? Each was a goldmine for a while and then faded. But new opportunities emerge, and at the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds, we’re always mobilized for the next Big Thing.

DSG What looks good now?

GS Well, there’s climate change. That’s developed very nicely, because the White House sees that research is cheap compared to doing something about it. And don’t forget torture. We can’t talk about it, but there’s a lot of action and some really good work is being done. Torture has been a seriously neglected field. Don’t overlook homeland security. Work on shoe-sniffing devices alone will keep a lot of people busy for a long time. And coming along very nicely there’s obesity. I think obesity really has legs, so to speak. Look how quickly it’s developed. First came obesity and now there’s trans-fats. A terrific issue, and a nice illustration of how one thing leads to another.

DSG How do you approach these topics?

GS The first step is to create a task force to develop a proposal for funding for a workshop as a preparatory step toward a conference. Once you get funding for a workshop, you’re pretty well along for getting funding for a conference, because the workshop can compile a list of problems that the funding agency had better not ignore. The conference confirms the findings of the workshop. And the funding agency is on notice. If something big goes wrong, someone can pull up an old report and charge that you were warned about it but didn’t do anything. The press really goes for old reports that were ignored. Get that workshop, and you’re on your way.

DSG How has this worked out in the past?

GS Very well. In the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds, we’re pretty quick about making organizational changes to take advantage of newly emerging opportunities. For example, when the war started in Iraq, we reconstituted our Institute for the Resolution of Conflict Through Violence, which we had disbanded at the end of the Cold War. Just recently we set up an Institute for Mono-Disciplinary Studies. It’s a reaction to everyone going overboard on interdisciplinary studies, to the point where you can’t tell who’s what anymore. Are there any just plain old vanilla physicists or psychologists or engineers left? Everyone is hyphenated. We think disciplinary purity will give us an advantage with the funding agencies. And then we have our Institute for Comparative Studies.

DSG Comparative studies of what?

GS Of whatever you want to compare. May be a novel approach, but it has its attractions.

DSG So you feel the research budget will be okay?

GS No. It’s not okay. But the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds will do just fine.

DSG Thank you, Dr. Swinger.

Observer Vol.20, No.4 April, 2007

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.

Comments

Leave a comment.

Comments go live after a short delay. Thank you for contributing.

(required)

(required)