Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Brain Drain.....on our budget!

Well, we've seen case after case of Big Science projects that yielded more hype than heft.  GWAS and other 'omics monsters are examples.  So is the $1 B (as in Billion) study on following up children but that hasn't followed a single one up yet.  There is ENCODE, quickly being exposed (e.g., here) as the fund-gobbler with limited or even questionable results that it is.  And the Thousand Genomes project.  And then there are the relentless, repetitive studies of diet and other go-hardly-anywhere or say-the-obvious-again that get the headlines.

And now, perhaps not totally coincidentally timed just when the President has to make a decision about cuts, comes the urgent, world-revolutionizing brain mapping project (BAM!).  Even though no details have yet been announced, already it is being blasted by people who know about the project and have the brains to see through its flimsy rationales (e.g., here). And, it's interesting that so many geneticists, who of course benefitted themselves from their own Big Science decade+, are coming out against it.  Not surprisingly, as it will steer funding to something else.

These projects do have some scientific questions, and identify areas of our limited knowledge.  But these are nearly after-thoughts--first, let's look at everything that technology can find without having to think seriously about why we're doing it first (i.e., to have to state some useful hypotheses).  And second, they seem to be transparent strategies for being bad rather than good citizens:  NIH, and its PT Barnum leader Francis Collins, lays this Big One at Obama's feet just when it comes time to think about budget cuts. And the EU has, even in times of austerity, ponied up a half-billion Euros, for its own version of the Brain Drain (The Human Brain Project) -- is this a case of the US not wanting to be left behind?  If the President says we can't do this all the way, then will he feel pressured to temper other cuts?  This or something like must be what's in the lobbyists for Big Science's minds.

There is waste aplenty, crises in science research and publishing, and the like.  But the very well organized university-science-industry welfare system knows how to propose projects easy to brag about and hard to turn down, to make sure the cuts happen on somebody else's lawn.  Proposing huge new projects of the 'omics' (do everything all at once without real ideas) in the face of a budget crisis is basically to sneer at the public good, a science arrogance, which has all the earmarks of a cynical disregard for society at large and a shallowly selfish form of guild-protection.  Or is this too cynical a view on our part?

No proposed project is entirely worthless, even 'mapping' the human brain.  But the mind-set or strategem to co-opt research funding by going for Big Science is destructive to science itself, making safe, incremental, essentially thought-light (hypotheses need not apply) progress, and restricted to a set of investigators who have to toe the line as components of the bigger project.  These are becoming more and more top-down, NIH-administrated mega-groups, rather than independently initiated projects (known as RO1 applications) and the same is likely happening in other funding agencies.

Investigators bemoan the reduction in RO1 funds, and the flood of applications, but investigators desperate for funds when the chance per application is slow churn out applications, and most of them are safe, incremental projects following fads that seem fundable.  Investigators submit many applications a year, and who can blame them?  Unless there is some real squeeze that forces the system to fund what is really inovative or addresses real problems, which is not the tenor of our Big Science times, making more money available for RO1's would be good, but won't solve the problems.

There is now a long track record to show that what we say is not so wrong-headed.  Yes, even after you filter out the hurricane of hyperbole, most projects find things and, yes, there are improvements in knowledge or even occasionally in medical care.  Some of them are quite important.  But that's not the same as being worth it, or yielding a greater payback compared to more focused studies on more clearly soluble problems would have been.

The rat-race this is imposing on the academic research system and the hungry dependence of universities on external grants, are destructive of jobs, job security, morale, and of science progress and innovation itself.

This does raise a countervailing problem, however.  We already have an excess of people with advanced degrees who can't get jobs, or the kind of jobs they've trained for.  This is separate from the debate about whether there is a shortage of adequately trained technical science and engineering graduates and whether K-12 and research-obsessed universities are dropping the training ball.  We recruit too many graduate students, largely to do our research for us, or help us teach, so we can keep getting those grants that often don't produce that much, and then the grad students find that there aren't the needed real jobs out there afterwards.  The abuse of the system is worse in professional schools than in real universities with students, because professional schools (medical, public health, etc.) pay little of their faculty's salary and can't live on the tuition of their relatively small student body.  This is not their fault so much as the fault of the system we've allowed to be built.

Thus, cutting research funding to eliminate minimally useful or wasteful projects--reducing the Brain Drain--will force a cut-back in our convenient but excess scientific labor pool, as Karl Marx might have referred to it.  Faculty and staff will lose jobs, as will those who make and distribute the materials labs use, advertise it, publish research journals, and the like.  So, budget adjustment rather than just cuts is what we really need.

We all want things that we do to continue.  We build interest groups, settle into comfortable existence, and fight threats to the status quo.  All of this is only natural.  But why should scientists or bureaucrats have an easier job-finding time than people in 'lower' walks of life?  The proper and humane attitude is for the granting agencies to be public-spirited and volunteer cuts--real cuts--in the research budget, but cuts that are phased and tied to reforms that will continue to provide more secure, if more modest, funding to more (especially younger) investigators, to take the chance that this more diverse, more focused rather than grandiose omics-scale, a less frenzied science ecosystem will produce greater, better fruit than it's been doing.

And our nation would then not need to suffer the impending Brain Drain.


Anonymous said...

I wonder... what specifically was difference between the successful Space Race versus now? There was such unity then in science or so it seemed. Even though I'm a neuroscientist, the idea of some sort of "united front" does speak to the romantic in me. There has been so much distrust over recent decades regarding intellectualism and therefore also science. This country has an us (average person) versus them (we scientists) mentality, as though we're a special race of human being that's simply out to rule the world with our test tube creations and make average people feel stupid. So as a larger project, something which could even place scientists in a more patriotic view, it's kinda nice honestly. On that point in particular I commend the administration in trying to turn around this anti-intellectualism, anti-education contagion which has plagued our country for as long as I can remember. But then, attempting to map the human brain... sounds like a huge, probably unsuccessful, undertaking-- particularly if they're wanting to literally map it as opposed to putting more money into neuroscience in general. But as vague as "mapping the brain" seems to be, as you say it's still going to drive people into a particular limited line of research. Wouldn't it have been better to "map the human body" instead? Or a personal preference of mine would've been that the administration proposed funding research into technologies that could recreate en masse synthetic photosynthesis so as to begin to undo some of the CO2 poisoning we've been putting into the atmosphere since the late 18th century. This idea in fact I just emailed the White House about yesterday, asking why more research energies don't go to this as opposed to brain mapping, something that could mean maintaining the livability of this planet-- at least for us and like creatures. It's far more useful and has a much clearer plan for development: create a large scale system that can mimic photosynthesis. If we put men on the moon, surely this is achievable also.

Ken Weiss said...

It's top down science, in some senses even a shadow form of intramural research by NIH that is contracted out as if it were extramural, and hence coopts extramural budget. But it's mega-project thinking that turns into committee projects with committee thinking, and because of huge budgets it's not very innovative except in grandiose technologies that individual PIs can't afford.

When funds were plentiful, science less politicized, fewer competing for funds, and less of an institutionalized bureaucratization, things may have worked better.

The Space Race, for better or worse, had a national objective. One may liken that to the need by the Army for a particular kind of artillery capability, a genuinely top-down need.

RO1 science is the venue for actual creative thinking, though the current System isn't working that way very well, given the institutionalized need for external grans if scientists want to keep their jobs.

For important problems, investigators will already be proposing research, without the need to sequester funds and have some NIH bureaucrat, with the help of some list of insiders, to decide (dictate?) where the funds will go.

If we had a less politicized peer review system and so on, we might not need any more funds to get more important projects, including legitimate neuroscience projects, funded. But we'd have to curb me-too, safe science, waste of all sorts, and these mega-projects if we want to get the best science. How many neuroscience or other really good basic science projects could be done with the $1B spent on the cohort following project we posted about a week or two ago, or the ENCODE project's budget, or the $3B brain-drain? Smaller projects could be given longer, more stable funding--with accountability for relevance and actual progress--making faculty less fearful of their jobs and more likely to propose more risky but more creatively probing science.

And if investigators did more teaching, and taught more rigorously, we'd have more scientists with good training to populate K-12 as teachers, and industry as innovators.

The proof of this skepticism is in the failure of the pudding to yield nearly the promised results.

The current system funds some find RO1 research, but even that is not doing very well given the Malthusian over-populating of the science establishment, etc.

Your ideas about climate remedies could be more like national-need projects (but one could argue whether this, if successful, would lead to more consumption on the grounds that it wasn't so harmful after all).

More stress on education, on the private sector taking up its own research as it used to and leaving universities to basic science, would be good in my view. American anti-intellectualism isn't new but we've been dumbing down for more than a generation and it seems to be a problem for our futures.

My view may be too idealistic, but it's no less real than the current Big Science promise machine we have now.

Anonymous said...

It's definitely happening over at NSF too. The NEON project is supported by only a very small minority of ecologists but is soaking up $100M which is a big chunk of the total ecology budget.

Anonymous said...

Just in regards to technologies to subdue climate change (as opposed to the actual point of the piece), I can understand the wish not to easily fix the problem and allow human society continue to get by with worse and worse behaviors re conservation. However, CO2 emissions continue to raise on average 2 parts-per-million each year, not decline despite my and other peoples' best efforts to purchase more fuel-efficient cars, use energy-saving lightbulbs, recycle, etc. It's not making enough of a difference. So I'm coming to the conclusion that to try to change people, Fortune 500 chairman and Average Joe alike, is not going to happen. People love their cars, the economy thrives off of waste, and there's just too many people still who don't want change. It seems a better solution to bypass human cognitive frailties and instead attack the problem directly by targeting levels of CO2. Is it worth promoting the sixth mass extinction simply so the human race can learn its lesson? While I wish the larger race were capable of such wisdom, most people simply are not. And especially without the kinds of leader lacking today who inspire national and international common sense.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, scientists aren't totally stupid! We can see the security and excitement of big projects with long-term funding. A more societally responsible approach would be to centralize big-science technologies but fund more focused but perhaps more innovative or adventurous (and higher risk) projects to individuals.

Mega-science does, of course, employ scientists, so the number of jobs supported may not be very different, but the freedom to think can be.

Ken Weiss said...

This is a much broader topic. Every generation faces its traumatic challenges, and climate change may (will?) be one of the next generations'. Would that be worse than, say WWII or the Great Depression, or Stalin and Mao? Hard to say.

The laissez-faire approach would be to let it happen, and hope that technology will fix things, etc. Then we can keep our SUVs and fly to Biarritz for a few days' luxury meals (we can't afford that, so this is just an example!). This is, in a way, the Republican business-based worldview. So what if there are no more polar bears, or we have to move New York? There aren't any dodos and Atlantis is under the sea, and we're still having a good time!

But fixing CO2 (which I totally support) will probably not prevent some form of problems, and what I think is most likely is the 'Malthusian' one that we'll just keep growing the world population, adding cars and whatever satisfies short-term hungers.

It's like competing causes of death and disease: I've always called my life-long jogging and biking activity a "get cancer" program, because if I don't have a heart attack, I'm more likely to live longer and get cancer.

We'll never escape the jaws of such conflicting outcomes, and that's why, I guess, we'll never come to general societal agreement about what to do relative to these major challenges.