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.