Should politicians choose what research to fund?

When should politicians decide which research to fund and which research not to fund? NEVER. Because if we let our politicians shape scientific enquiry, it will become skewed, biased and will lose the innovation and creativity of a discipline that ought to be driven by curiosity and the search for truth.

So imagine my surprise this week when I read that Lamar S. Smith, an American Republican Representative, has drafted a bill which will effectively remove the peer-review process in grant funding to The National Science Foundation and replace it with a set of criteria chosen by politicians.

A draft of this bill is viewable here. It states that prior to the awarding of grant funding, the research project:

1) must be in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) must be of the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.

I don’t have a problem with the first point. That seems reasonable to me. But the second and third points are both a bad idea: here’s why.

The second point suggests that in order to get funding, research must “answer questions or solve problems of the utmost importance to society at large.”

In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. His discovery has completely transformed modern medicine and is certainly research that was of the utmost importance to society at large. But he did not know he was going to discover penicillin. In fact, the discovery was a mistake and made completely by chance. He could not have known before hand that he was going to discover something that he did not know existed.

Another example is G.H.Hardy, a famous British mathematician who once famously quipped that his research was completely useless. He was a pure mathematician from mid-20th century in a field called number theory. Unbeknownst to him, some 50 years later his research would become the foundation of modern cryptography, without which e-commerce would not exist. Anyone making a purchase over the web with their credit card is making use of some of Hardy’s mathematical ideas and research.

In reading these words, you are a beneficiary of the work of Tim Berners-Lee, world-wide web creator, and his research at CERN in the 1980s. No-one could have anticipated back then what an enormous impact his research would have on society at large.

We don’t always know at the outset whether research is going to solve a specific problem or be of the utmost importance for society because we don’t know what we don’t know. It would be terrible for the progress of science to restrict all funding on the basis of this criteria. Had the politicians of the last Century adopted this strategy, we may not have penicillin, e-commerce or the world-wide web today as none of the scientists who made these discoveries expected it.

The third criterion on Lamar Smith’s list is that research must not be duplicated by other Federal science agencies. I have issues with this as well. Let’s say a scientific paper has just been published espousing some new theory. The authors might have done some experimentation and outlined their methodology. Wouldn’t it be sensible to allow other scientists to try to duplicate this research and so test the robustness of the results? If a number of different and independent groups are able to confirm the results through their own experimentation, then this would give more weight to the correctness of the results in the first paper and this is very useful information to have.

I hope this bill remains forever a draft.

The British “rock star” physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince wrote an article recently, “Politicans must not elevate mere opinion over science“. I’ve copied the last paragraph from the article, below:

We live in exciting times; our access to knowledge has never been greater, but this also means that humbug and charlatanism are able to creep into our lives with greater ease. We cannot afford to sit back and enjoy the achievements of previous generations, and decide that we are no longer obliged to continue the scientific exploration of nature. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday was not dazzled by the convenience of gaslight. We must not use our comparative comfort and luxury to elevate opinion above science or, even worse, to argue that scientific progress is no longer desirable or necessary. It would be a gross mistake to assume, for the first time in human history, that there are no great discoveries left to make.

13 responses to “Should politicians choose what research to fund?”

  1. Yes, I find this type of thing very disturbing. The idea that all research must have some easily quantifiable benefit seems absurd. Also, what I find odd is that it is often a right-wing view and seems to be related to a sense that publicly funded research should provide support for the private sector. What I find surprising about this is why they don’t feel almost the opposite. Surely, the private sector should fund the research that will have short- or medium-term impact (more predictable) and the public should fund that which has less obvious impact, and so is unlikely to be carried out by the private sector. It should be complementary in my view, rather than directly related. If the public sector is going to do the same as the private sector, why not just get rid of publicly funded research and rely on the supposedly much more efficient private sector.

    My cynical side makes me think that – in fact – it is the private sector is driving some of this. If they can get the government to fund research that they should probably be doing themselves, they get the benefit without the having to directly spend as much money.

  2. Interesting article. Agree generally with your comments. However,I suspect that interpretations of what research would be in the interests of national health, prosperity or welfare could differ wildly from government to government. For example, one government might see this as supporting the funding of research into renewable energy whereas another would be more interested in funding research into coal seam gas or brown coal mining. Open to interpretation depending on ideologies and prevailing mindsets.
    whatupwiththatblog could have a point too about the private sector.

    • Very true! I hadn’t thought of that either. The whole bill will undermine scientific progress and I pity a future America if they go ahead with it.

  3. Not so fast, Rachel.

    Serendipitous discoveries like Flemings’ can occur in the course of research that is heavily constrained by government to address a specific goal and indeed, the WWW is an example. Its genesis lies in ARPANET, a “fast” packet switch network (“fast” in those days meant 56Kb leased circuits) constructed starting around 1967 for the US Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (ARPA, now renamed DARPA). The objective was to develop a nation-spanning military communication network that had no single points of failure. Most of the actual research, development & construction was contracted to the private sector.

    The CERN nuclear research establishment where Tim Berners-Lee worked was again government-funded with research proposals subject to stringent vetting.(inevitable considering the huge cost of operating the facility and funding its scientists). Berners-Lee had a specific objective of finding a way for colleagues to store, categorise and wade through the growing mountain of research literature that they and others elsewhere working on similar problems were producing.

    The event right out of left field that really caused to WWW to take off was development of NCSA Mosaic browser by Marc Andreessen, a post-grad student at University of Illinois. This was certainly not a corporate-funded research project. It was something that a grad student just decided to do.

    Then in 1995 three Digital Equipment Corp engineers Were looking for a way to publicise the power of DEC’s newly introduced ALPHA processor chip. A back-of-the envelope calculation suggested that it was feasible to build a search engine with capacity to index all the (then) pages of the WWW. Altavista was the result. When I got access to the web at work in Sydney around April 1997, Altavista was THE way to find things on the web – little did we know that exactly one year later a paper, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”. would be presented at a conference in Brisbane,

    Finally, here is a major piece of research that Lamar S Smith might have thought was a waste of time and money, since there was already a perfectly good search engine supplied at no cost to the public purse by DEC. It only got up because a Comp Sci professor at Stanford thought it was a good topic for a PhD thesis. (Stanford though is a private university so I don’t know whether government funds were involved or not.) The post-grad students who developed it were of course Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They initially thought that it wasn’t much use as nobody was interested when they tried to sell rights to it. Then Andy Bechtolsheim gave them a cheque for $100,000 and encouraged them to start their own company., which they did.

    Standing back from all this, a key factor in evolution of the web was Berners-Lee’s decision to put the IP he developed in the public domain, continuing a tradition that began in the early days of computing and has continued to a variable degree ever since.

    Could he/would he have done this if he had been working for, say, Microsoft instead of a government-funded one? Who can say. It’s ironic though that Microsoft subsequently declared Internet Explorer to be available free, in an (unsiccessful) effort to bury Andreessen’s Mosaic.

    So maybe government funding was important in producing an invention that no government had asked for and that no government had expected. But the whole area is too messy to reduce to simple generalities.

    • I think there is a subtlety that you’re highlighting here and that is certainly relevant. We can’t expect governments to simply supply a large pot of money from which we can bid to do whatever we want. It’s seems reasonable that governments will make decisions about how to divide the research funding between the different general areas (medical, engineering, climate science, physical sciences, humnanities, etc). I suspect that most would agree that this is reasonable and doesn’t directly influence our ability to carry out research without undue influence. What is concerning is the possibility that governments would consider influencing decisions relating to individual projects. That, in my opinion, would start to cross the boundary between a government’s role in making strategic decisions about the importance of different areas (which is fine – IMO) and starting to influence actual research projects (which would not be fine – IMO).

    • That’s a great, and very succinct, history. But I would say one thing:
      “[Berners-Lee’s decision to put the IP he developed in the public domain] Could he/would he have done this if he had been working for, say, Microsoft instead of a government-funded one? Who can say.”

      I can say: in that situation he most certainly would not have been free to place anything into the public domain that he created while employed if the employer decided that the creation was of value. Even if he genuinely developed it out of his work time, lawyers, given virtually infinite funds, can twist the rules. (Take, for instance, the fact that micro$haft was found to be in breach of competition rules back in [placeholder], and after ten years they were still appealing the decision. And, oh look, my search to try and fill that placeholder has immediately revealed further shenanigans just last month…).

      Monopolies should be put into the public domain once they reach a certain size, in my view. They should be nationalised for the good of all, and those who lead them pensioned off: if such people really are worth the vastly inequitable sums society allows them to suck out of the system, they’ll consider it a challenge, and rise to the opportunity by doing good things elsewhere.

  4. It would be good though if governments did what ATT did for years at its Bell research labs, what IBM has always done and what Google does in a different way (where all engineers are entitled to spend a small proportion of their time doing whatever they want), to devote a small proportion of funding to completely speculative, seemingly pointless research.

    G H Hardy is a case in point. His work in number theory and also on Fourier analysis, has proved of great practical importance, but only years after he died in 1947. In a memoir published shortly before he took his own life he wrote,

    “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own…”

    His friends probably advised him to “buck up, old chap”. In this day & age he might
    have been encouraged to seek treatment for clinical depression.

    Hardy’s funding came through chairs at Oxford and Cambridge in an era when tenured professors could do pretty much what they liked, as long as it seemed to be somehow advancing knowledge. His work had ostensibly little or nothing to do with developments “to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science”., as Lamar Smith is proposing – even if, in hindsight, much of it turned out to be deeply relevant.

    Now let’s consider the case of Andrew Wiles. Like Hardy, the bread on Wiles’s table was provided by chairs at prestigious universities. Starting in the summer of 1986, Wiles commenced work on a long-held ambition: to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem. Initially he told nobody what he was doing, for fear of being ridiculed by colleagues. Seven years later he presented his first version of a proof. In a move that Lamar Smith would perhaps have deplored, other mathematicians set to work to reproduce Wiles’s hundred-page proof. They found a flaw. Wiles produced a revised proof a year later that has withstood subsequent scrutiny.

    We have yet to see whether Wiles’s work will make “directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world”. Yet he was subsequently awarded a knighthood and a number of prestigious prizes. It is clear achievements do not need to have practical value in Lamar Smith’s terms, to be valued by society.

    • This is good to read! I wasn’t sure whether your last comment was in agreement or disagreement with my post. Although it did contain lots of interesting information. 🙂

  5. The real risk to science from theRepublicans in the US stems from the fact that most of them do not understand how science works.

    Item: unwillingness to fund research that tries to duplicate previous results. Particularly in messy fields like medicine, a substantial proportion of results that make it into refereed journals fails to be reproduced by subsequent researchers. This can even happen in hard core disciplines such as physics (remember Fleischmann-Pons claims about “cold fusion, It is also an important check for scientific fraud.

    Item: ridicule and belittlement of seemingly trivial research without understanding its real objective (for example the recent case of shrimp on a treadmill,

    Item: blocking government funding of research that is unsupportive of right wing ideology (for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies are blocked from funding research on firearms control,

    And the less said about evolutiion, climate change and human fertility management the better.

    • “… that most of them do not understand how science works. “

      My view is more cynical: I’m sure that a great many of them understand science very well, including the science of manipulating sheeple.

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