Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Wish for the New Year -- not the bad luck of '13'

The new year starts with the bad-luck '13' as part of its identity.  The way this year is starting in the US, with disgustingly divided government, largely about the preservation of deep inequality and debt-building promises-to-everyone-about-everything to get elected, is not exactly rosy.

One thing in the offing seems to be some sort of budget-cutting that relates to science research.  We wonder if there is any hope that the government departments that give out the funds will take a serious look at priorities, rather than allowing vested interests to prevail.  That might take more guts  even than Congress has, if you can believe it.

How and where can we cut?
We've got a system of bloated costs, over-kill technology, and incremental rat-raced industrial research that keeps labs going whether or not there is much promise of real progress for peoples' lives or even for profound new basic understanding.  Keeping labs in business is an understandable issue, but partly that's because of the way university administrations have evolved and the kind of careerism that evolution has built into the system.

Smaller funding, but with more long-term security, and some fair-minded accountability to prevent dead-wood waste, could stimulate more cogent thinking, by more people, who taught more students rather than just writing grants  and publications, because more investigators could spend more time at the difficult research tasks.  Less pressure to pour out 'results' the way Scott's pours out paper towels, less frenzied proliferation of rapid-publication journals, and so on.  This could engender a system that allows or even stimulates innovative basic science more than what we have now.

Meanwhile, for more costly science, and especially for NIH related research, diversion of funds from the big comprehensive 'omics' bin to focused research on real problems, would be a proper response.  One can go agency to agency and see how much nearly useless incremental (but very costly) research is being supported, both intra- and extramurally.

In our area of work, genetics, NIH should focus heavily on disorders that we know are genetic in every sense of the term, when we know the gene involved.  Show that genetic knowledge can actually pay for the research that led to it, by doing something about those disorders.  Otherwise, pull back from mega-genetics and put resources where there is something more relevant to understand.

The nation faces big fish to fry--many major science-related problems--when it comes to research, but our tendency is to put aside big pots of funds for such things, and this just leads all the research livestock to mob to the trough, much of the projects of no real central relevance; and once the funds are committed to the institute, goal, or whatever, a big bureaucracy sees to it that the funds are spent, not to mention funding maintained as far into perpetuity as possible.

Instead, we should reward bureaucrats who find ways to spend less and return funds to the central kitty for more properly targeted research.  At the local university level, deans should be rewarded only if they can show that in major ways they have reduced the administrative overload, made their own unit's offices smaller and its activities fewer, and pulled back from their bean-counting, computer-based means of evaluating and advancing faculty--to get away from the overdrive system we have now.

Investigators should be forbidden to have more than some small number of grants (maybe no more than 2?) or amount of funding, so they can spend their time doing actual work rather than just writing grant applications, managing projects, and telling graduate students what to do for their dissertations that will support the investigator's agenda.

Measures of these kinds won't happen, not in the real world of '13', and that means it is hard to predict how or how fairly budget cuts will affect the research establishment.  But we can envision better ways to do things, leading to better ways to live, and to increased probability that we'll see more in the way of substantial new knowledge, and perhaps even some dramatic use of genetic knowledge to relieve people of challenges to daily life that really, truly, are genetic.

Cuts are never fun, not in our society.  But we may face some constraints, and if we think about the responses carefully, maybe 13 won't be so unlucky after all....

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