Thursday, January 14, 2010

Accidents do happen, but....

Touching on what seems to have turned into our theme of the week, John Hawks links to a story in the Telegraph yesterday reporting that a third of academics would leave Britain if threatened cuts to 'curiosity-driven' grants go through. This comes on top of deep cuts in funding for higher education in Britain across the board. According to the story, future research will be funded based on its perceived social and economic benefits; close to 20,000 people have signed a petition protesting this change.
...critics claim the move risks wiping out accidental discoveries as university departments struggle to support professors working on the kind of ground-breaking experimentation that led to the discovery of DNA, X-rays and penicillin.
But hold on.  'Curiosity-driven' research is different from accidental discoveries.

Ken, Malia Fullerton and I wrote a paper not long ago saying that epidemiology isn't working, and, basically, suggesting that people recognize this and come up with some better ideas. We had in mind specifically epidemiology's turn to genetics to explain chronic diseases, including diseases like type II diabetes and asthma, for which, even if people do carry some genetic susceptibility, the more important risk factors are clearly environmental, as shown by the fact that incidence of these diseases has risen sharply in recent decades.

We called the paper "Dissecting complex disease: the quest for the Philosopher's Stone?" (Not the Philosopher's Stone of Harry Potter fame, our reference was to the alchemist's dream of a substance that could turn base metals into gold.) The paper was published as one of the point/counterpoint papers in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

This was an interesting exercise. The paper wasn't reviewed in the usual sense, with us able to correct and revise before publication. The paper was published just as we submitted it, followed by commentaries by prominent epidemiologists. We knew people could find holes in our argument, and we waited for months for the comments, imagining how devastating they were going to be, and how we'd respond. But, when we finally got the commentaries, we were amazed. We could have done a much better job of blasting our paper than any of the comments we got. This was somewhat reassuring in that no one said we were wrong, but disappointing because we had very much wanted to start a dialog on the issues.

How is this relevant to the 'curiosity-driven research' story? Well, one of the major defenses of the status quo in the commentaries about our paper, of spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on research that everyone knows isn't working, was that we can't cut the funding to epidemiology because everyone knows that good stuff is often found by accident. This strikes us as a very strange justification for maintaining the hugely expensive system of researchers spending inordinate amounts of time and energy to write grants proposing research everyone recognizes isn't going to lead to much, never mind improve public health, and tie up equally inordinate amounts of time, energy and money on the part of reviewers who are also expected not to say that the emperor has no clothes (or the Philosopher has no Stone). In the hope that somebody will stumble across something unexpected one day that really will be progress.

This is not the same as 'curiosity-driven research'. Why is the sky blue? is an honest question and whether or not taxpayers should fund the research needed to answer it can be debated on its merits. If the UK has decided to no longer fund basic science, but only research that will lead to patents, or whatever 'social merits' are, that's very different from the idea that we should maintain a system that isn't working on the off chance that something good will come of it.  That decision can be debated, but at least it's an honest debate.


John R. Vokey said...

You quoted that ``a third of academics would leave Britain if threatened cuts to 'curiosity-driven' grants go through.'' Go where? The same shite is happening everywhere. Which, of course, doesn't detract from your real message (with which I agree). But still, what an empty threat.

John R. Vokey said...

This is painful.

I have had *maybe* three papers that I could fairly honestly mount a defence regarding their provenance as ``pre-conceived'', which is to say, that I was fairly confident when I began that the research turned out more or less as I anticipated.

As for the rest, oh, I was equally confident: but they did not turn out as I anticipated, and, indeed, as a consequence, led to I think, deeper and better understandings of the processes and structures I was interested in. But, yes, these results and subsequent understandings were complete accidents. (Oh shit, there goes my funding.)

Anne Buchanan said...

So, if most of the best findings are happened upon by accident, then let the system acknowledge and even encourage that up front. Forget all those carefully planned grant proposals, (many of which these days are for work that's already been done anyway, adding yet another layer of cynicism and dishonesty to the whole endeavor), distribute the money evenly and let people work on whatever strikes their fancy. Make it an honest system, with arguably an even higher likelihood of success.

Holly Dunsworth said...

This was illuminating, thank you Anne and Ken.