Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Science funding: what it's really (or at least largely) about

An Op-Ed in Monday's hurricane-nervous NY Times is a plea for more federal science research funding.  It's by a former science adviser and of course it's an advocacy piece.  It makes the attempt to show the benefits to society of university-based federally sponsored research--the usual claim that this leads to new medicines, cleaner energy, and more science jobs.

Of course, these things are true in principle and in some instances actually true.  We'd create more science jobs if we actually did our duty with respect to raising the expectations and standards for our educational programs, especially for undergraduates (but that's not what professors' jobs are all about any more).  The extent we really generate usable research that leads to products is something we don't know much about, because industry loves foisting their responsibility (to do research for their company's products) off on the public, while still being secretive and competitive so that most of the key research is done in house.  Pharmas are trying to cooperate in their support for basic facts which will then be turned over to their own private (and secret) value-added research.

By buying research from universities, companies impose various levels of privatization of the results (and commercial incentives for faculty), which undermines the proper role of public institutions, and in some ways actually privatizes public research.

Federal research is, in a naturally expectable way, bureaucratized to give it inertia so that program officers' portfolios are stable or enlarged, and prominent investigators' labs (and their universities' general funds), have continuity.  That may sound good, but it means safe, incremental work without any serious level of accountability for producing what one promised (here, we refer not just to miracle results, which can't be promised, but things like adequate statistical power to detect what one proposes one has the power to detect, or advances in things like disease therapy that is promised in grant applications.).

One can always crab about this waste of funding generated by the way we know how to work the system in our favor.  We ourselves have been regularly funded for decades, so this post is not  a matter of sour grapes on our part.  But there is, from an anthropological point of view, a broader truth--one that shows in a way the difference between what are called a culture's emics and its etics.  The emics are what we say we're all about, and the etics are what an observer can see we are really up to.  Here, part of the usually unspoken truth about huge government investments is that citizens are given promises by the priests (the recipients) of some specific good in return for investment.  But the momentum and inertia is largely for a different reason.  As the Times author says:
Moreover, the $3.8 billion taxpayers invested in the Human Genome Project between 1988 and 2003 helped create and drive $796 billion in economic activity by industries that now depend on the advances achieved in genetics, according to the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit group that supports research for the industry. 

So science investments not only created jobs in new industries of the time, like the Internet and nanotechnology, but also the rising tax revenues that made budget surpluses possible.
This is both a post-hoc rationale (one can always look backwards and identify successes and thus try to justify the expense, and its continuation, but is not usually compelled to argue what else, or what better, could have been done by government--or by taxpayers keeping their money--had the policies been different.

At the same time, it's a very legitimate argument.  If science investment doesn't lead to a single real advance in health or energy efficiency, but if it does lead to jobs for lots of people, not just including the scientists, but the people who make, transport, market, advertise, and design their gear, their reagents, even their desks and computers, then those funds are circulating in society and in that sense doing good.

It's a poor kind of justification for the investment relative to its purported purpose.  But life is complex.  Sequencing machines or enzymes or petri-dishes are made by people.  The challenge to identify real societal needs (or to decentralize) and achieve success without just building self-interested groups and bureaucracy is a major one.  Often it leads to disasters, like wars or poor agricultural management, and so on.  But it also is part of the engine of a society, whatever that society's emic delusions about what they're up to may be.


Josh Nicholson said...

Good post. I think it is very telling that the genome projects (human and cancer) can only be said to produce jobs. If they had produced a breakthrough, even a little one, this would be touted as the proof it was worth the money. In cancer they continue to sequence thousands of cancers and they continue to observe that most cancers even of the same type do not share mutations. The answer to the problem, "I thought that doing a few hundred tumours would probably be sufficient. Even at the level of 1,000 samples, I think we're probably not going to have the statistics we want."

Ken Weiss said...

The basic facts were known 35 years ago (I know, because I was working on the issues and evidence was already accumulating). Every success is touted (GWAS advocates claim thousands of 'hits'), and their smallness and vagaries is dismissed on a variety of grounds.

Of course, there will be successes, and some areas such as (perhaps) cancer response to therapies as a function of gene expression profiles, may be very useful.

But the bottom line is that we do this kind of approach because (to quote someone I won't name) "that is what I do". It is because our labs and careers are dependent on safe things we know, even when we know they are not really working.

So, the political justification, usually by Republicans but Clinton was just saying this yesterday, is that it makes for jobs. Why not just say that outright and make up things that we can redirect money towards that will make jobs?

Biomedical research isn't the only culprit. Defense research is certainly another. Much of social science research is right up there in the leader table of no-fruit-bearing.

Unfortunately, it would be nice if there were better ways, faster ways, for science to understand the world _and_ also generate jobs....