how we shouldn’t fix research grant problems

Having the public vote on what science gets funded and why to fix the issues with how grants are given out is an idea only a politician could love and would be disastrous in practice.
two apes arguing

Apparently, the real problem with why research and technology grants and investments don’t always work out as planned and generate cures for diseases and revolutionary new tools, isn’t because science is hard and a lot of barriers between idea and finished product have to be negotiated by experts, it’s because the scientists and engineers aren’t being vetted by the public and wasting taxpayer money, according to an article which laments both Obama’s and Romney’s lackluster approach to tackling science and tech funding.

Really, much of the piece is riddled with cliché anti-science gems which sound not too dissimilar from a spoiled brat’s mid- shopping trip tantrum at a toy store. What do you mean I can’t have that toy? What do you mean we can’t buy it today and take it home? You’re the worst parents ever! I’m going to go and complain to grandpa and grandma if you don’t buy it for me! Of course the author is more adult about the subject, but his demands are basically a grown-up version of the same thing. Either scientists and engineers give him cancer cures and computers to read his mind and do his chores for him, or he’s going to go to politicians and tell on them so their funding is cut, every failed experiment is punished. This is his proposed roadmap to “fix science.” Until it breaks.

Taxpayers in America are used to spending money and getting something concrete in return. Very seldom will they spend cash just to have someone figure things out without necessarily delivering the solution, and when they do, they’re unlikely to do so again. So after investing a lot of money into a particular tool or line of research over many years, they expect a return on their investment in the form of a new gadget or a new drug. But while that may be a good attitude for investing in a company or shopping at the mall, it’s not a good idea to apply the same kind of expectations to what is inherently a process of repeated trial and error with few givens. Yet, that’s exactly the attitude we’re apparently supposed to do with complicated technical and scientific matters…

Neither candidate will ask, for instance, why taxpayers spend some $30 billion annually to try to understand the basic causes of diseases but virtually nothing on delivering effective new medical therapies to the ill. Or why the departments of defense and energy invest enormous resources in developing military technologies difficult, if not impossible, to translate for civilian applications.

Here’s the thing. As said before, science is hard. Really hard. Nature could not be bothered to give any less of a flying monkey’s tail rash about how much we spend trying to cure cancers. When a single tumor comes with six different strains of the disease, as was recently discovered, yeah, it’s going to take scientists a minute or two to figure out how to do the medical equivalent of simultaneously putting down six ninjas, each armed with a different weapon and approaching from a completely different angle, without killing a hundred bystanders in the process. People dream of robot butlers doing their chores for them and since people I know I worked with projects related to AI cognition, they ask me when we’ll have those all the time.

Their ears quickly whither just as soon as they realize how much raw computing power it takes to crunch data from the environment and run through all the calculations to come up with a conclusion, and how far away we are from being able to design an algorithm that will let a robot make you breakfast in less than five hours and without being custom built for your specific kitchen. Yes, we are taking big leaps towards this, but affordable robot butlers might be decades away at best, and yes, there is a very real worry that they’ll steal thousands of jobs in the process.

Sure, you might get lucky and leave a dirty lab for a while, then come back and find out that you incubated filth so potent that it can be harnessed to effectively treat almost any bacterial infection in humans, creating a medical revolution that added decades to life expectancy. But more often than not, you’ll fail to develop a new, effective, safe medication some 999 times out of 1,000 after a decade or so of work. Likewise, technology we had to custom build for war won’t necessarily translate well to the civilian world because we don’t build guns and missiles anticipating that they’re going to be converted into sewage pipes or drills.

Whenever you start to pile on too many uses for any particular tech stack, you’ll end up with a monstrosity that doesn’t perform any of its intended tasks well. Your computer can’t also be your microwave and shower. Of course we have internet communication protocols, miniaturized electronics, and new alloys and plastics making a leap from sword to ploughshare, but many very specialized systems simply can’t make this kind of jump. But hey, don’t listen to a geek like me because I’m part of the problem. You see, the geeks have this “peer review” policy that makes it hard for laypeople to participate in reviewing a scientist’s or engineer’s work. That’s just so elitist, isn’t it?

For much of the past 65 years, the scientists and engineers have essentially told the government, “Trust us.” Through the self-regulation of peer review, scientists and engineers essentially judge the value of their work, resisting attempts to permit ordinary citizens to express their preferences, either directly or through elected representatives. Despite some significant exceptions, such as research on certain diseases and in specific areas of national security, [the following] philosophy of government-funded research has prevailed: Government can decide on what level to fund S&T, but research priorities should be [under] the purview, chiefly if not exclusively, of the scientists and engineers themselves.

Come on folks, when I posted the preprint to a project on which I was working, how many of you took a look at it? About a thousand people looked at that post yet the silence was deafening. Don’t think I’m offended. The likelihood that I’m going to read a very specific medical paper by a doctor whose blog I read is also low since I do not have an adequate education in medicine to make an educated decision on the value of the work. And if you know that I’m not educated enough to review medical research, why in the world would you ever think that my opinions about it should drive funding policy for this line of study? Would you trust me to detect a problem with these papers or not get too carried away with a false positive? Yet, according to the logic above, because my taxes pay for this work, I should have the right to review it because the customer is always right and I’m the customer.

This is plainly ridiculous and given that so many Americans simply tune out when a discussion is outside their area of person competence, we’d get science by wish list rather than actual scientific research that explores what’s possible and what’s out there. Science by mob rule is unsustainable. Just think of all the petitions from overzealous creationists demanding that evolutionary biology get cut off from the NSF. Imagine how many scientists would be punished for not getting a potential cancer cure right on their first try. In such an arrangement, small minorities of zealots and activists will easily outshout the majority of rational participants, creating a recipe for fiscal and scientific disasters. Want to fix science? Just let it progress in peace.

# science // grant / science funding / scientific research

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