Re: “The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists” Pt 1

Back in July,  Julia Belluz, Brad Plumer, and Brian Resnick wrote up this beautiful thing, which you need to go read right now.   And I said at the time that I would reply.  And then I got lazy.  But then so this is me doing that, now.  In 7 parts, structured as their big beautiful article is.

Rough Draft as of Oct. 30.  Will be updating with links and more careful thought during the week.

Part I: The Money Problem

Well so hey, the AAAS just published an interactive data tool on federal science funding.  Go play with that.

The Quantity Issue

We’ve stalled out in our funding of R&D.  This is almost certainly a problem.  Secondarily, and it would take some additional analysis to be sure, but it’s not super clear that the composition has changed in any meaningful way (which we might expect and want in an ever-changing landscape of science/innovation — e.g., should AI funding get a boost?  If so, from where?  How much latitude does any agency have to do this?)

The Source Issue

Nah no the magazine is still fine.  Hip hop will survive regardless.

But okay so as I’ve talked about before, there’s been an ongoing rise in non-profits funding science.  Why do we care?  Well, the money is unaccountable, pretty much.  More than that, it’s subject to the whims of (sometimes long-dead, if the Foundation is not spend-down by mandate) individuals, who are not always going to be trying to maximize public good.  Call it the “My great uncle Jimmy went and died young from obscure disease X, so that’s where my money’s going” effect.  Or call it availability bias.  Whichever is easier.

This seriously deserves its own line of research.  But my personal experience is that non-profits have no idea what the hell they’re doing.  So.  (To be clear, I’m implicating myself too!  But also someone thought it was a good idea to have a totally green, 23-year old have any kind of influence over millions of dollars in grants.  Which, yeah, let’s not do that anymore).

The Time Horizon Issue

I love this one.  This is so huge.  The entire purpose of federal R&D funding is that it can avoid market pressures and fund research on truly long timelines, i.e. 10+ years (and take that “+” seriously!).  VCs operate on a 5 year timeline already, which is ridiculous, but you can’t have the government falling into the same trap.

And it makes complete sense that this has endogenous impacts on what lines of research scientists pursue in the first place.  I’m pretty sure it was Goldfarb showing last year that the science getting funded is almost always of an incremental nature.  Reminder to myself to write a post (or 5) on this topic in particular.

The Independence Issue

Yeah.  Good lord.

The Time Suck Issue

I’m actually unconvinced that this is such a big worry.  Then again there was some paper recently saying that like, 1/3rd of a scientist’s time is spent writing grant proposals.  I don’t know.  Like for sure, on some level, it should be zero… but also there’s something to be said for the act being productive in and of itself, both as a communications exercise (i.e., well shit, now someone other than me has to understand what I’m doing) and a sharpening exercise (i.e., well shit, maybe I don’t need to do 20 things on this project, but rather just the 15 important things).

Proposed Fixes

Quantity — Well okay, for one we don’t actually know that we were in equilibrium before.  Perhaps this is the correct balance of researchers to grants.  Probably not, but I mean that more work should be done to determine where such an equilibrium is (otherwise how prescriptive can we really be, beyond saying, “this ain’t it!”) .  To their credit, the authors acknowledge this!  But getting that quantity right seems to me a first-order question, and one that I really have not seen addressed anywhere in the literature [note to self: check!].

Stability — yes, agreed, this should be an obvious and easy fix.

Award Method — Such a rich area for investigation.  The people vs. projects thing is a live debate, and while Hughes has the track record, it’s definitely not a settled question.  A lottery is interesting, but probably not great for stability reasons (above).  I personally am kind of in love with the UofI proposal from a few years back, where researchers are each given a fixed allotment and then have to dole out some portion to their peers.  Obviously some huge problems there to get around w/r/t collusion but it’s such a radical change that it’s hard to predict what would happen ex ante, and seems worth trying.



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