Tag Archives: ResearchFunding

Help! I’m a Hostage! (D – 7)

Maybe you think this shutdown isn’t all that bad?  Perhaps you’re not talking to scientists, or thinking about their role in society. The effects of the government shutdown continue to ripple outward.  Scientific research doesn’t cope well with shutdowns.

http://www.ibtimes.com/us-government-shutdown-antarctic-research-program-5-other-shuttered-science-programs-1419918

In many fields, the research has to be maintained continuously; if you shut it down, even for a short period, all your work is wasted.   Continue reading

Cutting to the Heart

Well, you know there’s something deeply wrong with the way your country is run when stupid things like this start happening.  Take a research program that’s been monitoring several thousand people at a time, focusing on their cardiovascular health, and following them for decades (http://www.framinghamheartstudy.org/about/history.html); and without warning, cut it by over 40%.  Not even a phased cut; just “sorry, you have $5 million instead of $9 million this year.”

Oh, that’s a good move.  That’ll save the country a lot of cash.  And so what if all that money we spent already, over the last decade or so, will now be partially wasted (since the data they’ve been accumulating will be severely compromised.)

It seems likely that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the government’s NIH, would not have imposed this cut this if they themselves didn’t face severe budget reductions, handed down from the NIH which like all branches of government is suffering cuts.  Do any of my readers know the full story?

When you cut government across-the-board by 6%, the consequences for individual programs tend to be much, much steeper, due to fixed costs that can’t be cut.  The consequences grow as you go down the bureaucratic chain…

Anyway, I hope a private foundation will pick up some of the slack on this one.  But this is happening all over, and not every program that we’ve already spent money on will survive these types of cuts.

[Thanks to Matt Buckley for drawing my attention to this story.]

First It Was The Political Scientists…

Big changes are coming to the US academic world.  It’s a confluence of influences: recession, the climate argument, the online revolution, political gridlock, expensive university education, …

A major accomplishment by one side has been the elimination (more precisely, the attaching of impractical conditions that made a funding process impossible) of all NSF funding of a social science discipline with few external defenders: political science.  Here’s a little article with relevant links, by Sean Carroll.

Of course you can see what will happen next; having succeeded, these folks will go down the list of academic disciplines and eliminate a few more.  What will be the foreseen and unforeseen consequences?

Why Government Investment in Scientific Research Is Worthwhile

[NOTE ADDED: Unfortunately, within two months of this post, Mr. Zakaria was suspended from his job for plagiarism.  Such a spectacular lack of integrity calls into question everything he has ever written, and so I cannot anymore recommend his article, nor will he ever be quoted on this website again.]

 

Today I’d like to call your attention to an article by Fareed Zakaria, entitled “How government funding of science rewards U.S. taxpayers.”  (The sentiment also applies to taxpayers elsewhere, of course.) I can’t vouch for the details inside the article, but the point that Zakaria makes is one that I personally feel is very important.

When I give public talks about the fundamental research that I or my colleagues are doing, I am often asked, “what are its benefits to society?”  It’s a completely fair question, but with fundamental research it is typically far too early to know the answer; it can be many decades before the benefits, if any, become evident.  I think the best answer requires a long view — the kind of view Zakaria lays out in the article.  I often reply this way: that you should think about government investment in fundamental scientific research as similar to venture capital investments in many small startup companies; most of these efforts will fail, or will succeed with a small payout, but one or two will pay off in spectacular fashion and change the world.

And you surely want that payout to happen in a friendly country.  Zakaria  points out the worrying slope that the United States is on; though scientific breakthroughs have a big impact on the economy over the long term, funding for science is on a long-term decline (as a fraction of GDP) in the United States, while it is sharply increasing in a list of countries that include some that are not friendly to the United States.

Zakaria focuses on what is happening today in biotechnology, genetics, genomics, etc.  He also mentions the historical case of the transistor, the device that lies at the heart of our computer-based society. This last is an even nicer example if you expand your view.   The research that was done in the late years of the 19th century on the emission of light by atoms and on the electron led eventually to the equations of quantum mechanics, which in turn were essential in the development of the transistor.  No 19th century scientist could have predicted that the discovery of the electron would help put a cell phone in your pocket.

[Thanks are due to Leonid Kruglyak for bringing this article to my attention.]