NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The future of science... [Full blog with links and pictures for email clients.]

Sorry to keep diverting away from The Lab Rats' Guide, so I will stick this in as a bonus odd-day post.

On Facebook the other day, a friend asked my opinion of an article that laments a major scientific funding organization's policy of funding questionable research that supports national policy directives while making it near impossible to get funded for research which could possibly disprove or alter our fundamental understanding of the same issues.

Academic Scientist Toby Carlson places a substantial blame on the scientific funding agencies:
"Often, an agency’s request for proposal, or RFP, reads like a legal document, constricting the applicant to stay within very narrow and conventional bounds, with no profound scientific questions posed at all. Many RFP’s are so overly specific that they amount to little more than work for hire. Those who know how to play the game simply reply to RFP’s with parroted responses that echo the language in the proposal, in efforts to convince the reviewers that their programs exactly fit the conditions of the RFP."  
[Carlson, T. N, 2010: Science by Proxy. The Chronicle for Higher Education. October 17 2010. ]
In the same article he also states:
"Program managers ... favor large, splashy research projects with plenty of crowd appeal..."

"Money is trumping creativity in academic science."
In another article, Carlson also writes:
The atmosphere being created by the present system in academic science is joyless. Good scientific research requires dedication, patience, and enthusiasm and a high degree of passion for the chosen subject. Overhearing conversations in the corridors of my own institution, I am struck by the fact that the topics are almost always related to proposal writing and funding and not to scientific ideas.

[Carlson, T. N., 2008: Current funding practices in academic science stifle creativity. Review of Policy Research (Dupont Summit issue), 25, 631-642.]
While I have not seen the blatant pressure to fund "politically correct" science, I can certainly attest to the fact that so much more emphasis is now placed on the difficulties in obtaining funding.  Part of this difficulty is in the peer review process.  A given committee member on a scientific review panel (for NIH research grant applications) will probably have to review 30 grants this year.  There are three review sessions spaced throughout the year.  A given reviewer will be assigned 10 grants each session, and each grant will have 3 main reviewers out of a committee of 20 people.  They will then meet (usually in Washington, D.C.), discuss and assign scores for each application.  Only "best" half of the applications will get discussed by the committee (the "lower half" gets only a written review) and all committee members can discuss and recommend scores.  The current funding climate is such that only about 5% of all applications can be funded, so it is highly competitive.  However, it is very true that "flashy" and "relevant" projects will have the appeal to ensure that not only will the application be discussed (i.e. "upper half"), but that it will be well-scored.

On the other hand, I can certainly see evidence of how political ambitions can attempt to subvert science.  One need only to read The Congressional Record to see attempts by Senators and Representatives to insert their favorite cause into the funding bills for various agencies that support scientific research. 

However, as I see it, all of government funded research is potentially in trouble.

The U.S. national budget just cannot sustain our current level of funding - yet instead of cutting out the bureaucracy and regulatory burden, the "low hanging fruit" will be money that is paid out to non-entitlement programs. That means we can expect to see *way* less funding for NIH and NSF. We're already feeling the pinch. One alternative is that there *are* research dollars in "Congressionally Directed Research Programs" and the like - basically earmarked money for the projects that Reps and Senators can get each other to vote for. That means "popular" (or at least high-profile) projects like climate, AIDS, cancer, etc.

The result is more *directed* research on particular topics. *Undirected* research (what we call Basic Science) is much less likely to be funded, but it is the Basic Science that often yields alternatives that the "directed" research will not or can not discover (because it is not in the direction of funding). As such, LabRat Intelligence research cannot in fact be expected to disprove LabRat Intelligence. [Note - this is not a political statement or denial - it is a statement of *how* the funding and research is set-up.] First, if a project is specifically set up to research LabRat Intelligence, it makes an implicit assumption that LabRat Intelligence exists.  Then, if the Null Hypothesis is not carefully conceived, it also starts from an assumption that LabRats are intelligent [Meanwhile I am being stared at by Ratley!].  The third pitfall is failure to consider alternatives - perhaps the intelligent creatures are really extraterrestrial?  Then we have the flawed assumption that they were lab rats! SO *directed* research can very easily fall into the problem that the *direction* of the research precludes the possibility that alternative explanations are possible. 

Another *real* example. Alzheimer's Disease can be expected to continue to receive funding. So will PTSD research, and to a lesser extent, drug abuse. A common factor in all three is memory. The "Basic Science" approach would be to learn as much as we can about memory, and along the way learn how disease, stress and drugs alter memory. The *directed* approach is to *assume* that Alzheimer's disease has a particular effect on memory and find a way to stop it. While useful, the research can all too easily miss basic principles that are applicable to *many* things, such as other diseases, age effects, general health status, or brain-machine interfacing.

Other sources of research funds are private foundations - which typically focus only on one disease - or drug companies, that want to know if their drug will work (or how to make it work). All of which serves to focus too much on the result and not the inquiry which is the root of scientific discovery. There *are* private sources of science funding, but I fear all too much of science funding is headed toward *directed* (or even "micromanaged") rather than *basic* research.

My friend tells me that he is *way* more optimistic than I about private sources for scientific funding.  I won't argue the point, nor will I deny that there is a place for continued federal scientific funding.  I do know that many people are earning PhDs and not continuing into academic science and research. Still more acadmeic scientists are retiring early or finding other professions.  I don't know the solution, and I do not think it will be easy.

It *does* have me worried, because it portends another scientific "Dark Ages" if we don't figure out that we still have a need for the type of scientific research that says "What if?".


1 comment:

  1. One only needs to read the "CRUtape letters", the e-mails, documents, program code etc. from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia to see exactly how this has played out in a big way. There we have a group of people determined they're right, anyone who dares to point out any problem with their methodology, their math, or even points out they turned a chart upside down is a "denier" of The Truth. Nevermind that a hurricane like Katrina unleashed as much energy in its seven days at Category Five as the entire human race uses in about 14 years, or that the total amount of Solar energy intercepted by Earth is equal to several Katrinas a second. When you run the numbers, it's no wonder hurricanes produce gamma rays, they're nature's cyclotrons. Our puny human efforts are bigger and stronger! Just ask the guys who decided they'd have to redefine what peer review is to keep any inconvenient pointing-out of pesky contrary facts out of the journals.


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