President Obama sold the nearly $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus plan, based on its ability to create several million jobs as soon as possible. Much of the plan focused on "shovel ready" bridge and road improvement projects, but last fall Vice-President Biden revealed that the federal government had given $18 billion in stimulus funds to research projects that could last several years and typically produce few jobs.
In the St. Louis area, Washington University has received by far the most stimulus money. According to a university spokeswoman, Wash U has been awarded $152 million and spent $74 million, creating 115 jobs and retaining 242. In all, the $74 million in spent stimulus money is responsible for 357 jobs, or $206,000 per job.
Of course, you can't measure the value of research only by the jobs created by the project. Washington University's stimulus funded projects include work on cancer, the human genome and the brain, all of that research could potentially help save lives. Still, the stimulus funds were sold because of their urgent need for immediate impact on the economy, not the likely snail pace of most academic research.
A researcher at the University of Missouri-St. Louis is studying wood-boring beetles in Brazil. According to UMSL, that research has the potential to help the Missouri timber industry, but for now, the three year $451,000 grant has produced the equivalent of only one full-time job, according to Recovery.gov, the official website for the stimulus plan. UMSL says the principal researcher spends 2-3 weeks a year in Brazil while a graduate assistant is there for 2-3 months a year.
Some research projects create more work in other countries than they do in America. Example: the least popular stimulus project on the website Stimulus Watch looks at voting in Africa. The funding will pay for seven polling workers in Africa, but will only cover the cost of the equivalent of a part-time worker at the University of California-San Diego. It may seem petty, but the idea was to create work in the United States, not other countries.
There are countless projects in the Middle East and other regions of the world that involve an American researcher or graduate-assistant with foreign partners. In much of this research most of the money appears to be spent in foreign countries. Again, the merit of the research is one issue, but the ARRA was sold on jobs, American jobs.
The biggest stimulus scandal involves hundreds of millions of dollars going to China to build the giant windmills for American wind farms. It's not research, but it shows that a significant amount of stimulus money is going overseas, even to a nation that many Americans consider an enemy.
You can go to Recovery.gov and Stimuluswatch and search for keywords like "beetles," "Africa," "Iran," "Egypt," or "China," and find some of the stimulus funded projects referenced in my blog.
Then, there's stimulus funded research that's just silly. It can be fun to find those prjects, too, and maybe a little frustrating once you track them down. Do we really need to spend $221,000 to discover the "barriers to correct condom use?" Seriously?