Funding For Science: At A Crisis Point?

At some point in graduate school, every student hears about the eternal torment of grant applications, usually in the form of the abysmally low success rate of said applications. The situation has not been made any better since the 2008 economic crises, with many countries slashing their funding for science in a bid to cut government spending (although cutting government spending in an economic crises is a terrible oxymoron – but don’t take it from me, here is Paul Krugman and his take on the myth of the utility of austerity). Scientific American ran a story about the apparent crises in funding for science, noting the large amounts of time spent on failed applications, and the current incentives for producing safe but mediocre science.

This begs the question: is this a unique crises point in the funding for science or are we at the end of a golden period for scientific funding? The United States started dramatically increasing funding for science during and after the Second World War, first in a bid to defeat Germany and Japan and then in an effort to trounce the Soviets.  Now, in the age of a Trump administration, the future of science in America looks decidedly shaky. There is no USSR to bolster funding for a space race, and even climate change deniers are wrecking any chance of any series funding for averting or dealing with catastrophic climate change that we will all have to deal with soon. The only challenge to the US domination of science will come from China, and at that point I do not believe anyone will want either a hot or cold war with China to improve funding for science.

I am sure everyone is aware of the profound benefits for funding science; all you have to do is take a look at the contents of your household, from the technology which can fit in your pocket to the supplies of drugs in your bathroom cabinet. What is less appreciated is what it takes to get to that point. Which brings us to the point of public policy. As mentioned in this paper, we could conceptualise allocating scientific funds based on the “supply” of science and how well it matches with the “demand” for specific knowledge, for example, technologies to cure cancer. While this paper raises some good points, it is also filled with stereotypes armed with anecdotes which are not very, well, scientific. Many scientists could very well be aware of societal problems and wish to pursue projects which aim to solve them, and not only wish to pursue “pure” science.

The main problem stems from how to define basic and applied science. Technically, I work in basic research but my project is aimed at learning (indirectly) a bit more about the bacterium which causes tuberculosis so that someone can develop better tools to combat the disease. No one expects their project to be the one which “cures” cancer because it is a complex disease. How can you apply science to cure cancer when you know so little about it?

Everyone is aware of the “hook” you have to espouse if you wish to get a project funded. In the bigger picture, most research is a tiny drop in a vast pool of knowledge, that one, or a few, papers you will produce to keep funders happy. It has almost become a bit of a joke; your project will not, for example, cure cancer but you almost have to pretend as if it will have such a major impact. How can someone be so certain of an outcome in a field where outcomes are ill-defined and knowledge only resting on probabilities, not certainties?

Perhaps the problem is to do with a wider culture of expectations. Science has produced miracles, such as vaccines. But now we are at the point where the complexity of nature truly belies us. There are very few “low-hanging fruit” in science, a term used to describe relatively easy discoveries which can have a profound effect, such as the early vaccines for childhood diseases. However, the culture of expectation still remains, most manifestly raised in the over-hype of sequencing the human genome. Yes, it was a very important period for science and has improved our technology and the efficiency of science, but at the end of the day it was not going to be the holy grail of curing every single human disease. I shall leave you with the following consideration: if society does not change its expectations, will it prove to be the golden calf for science funding?

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