Politics of Public Research Funding

A great deal of science is funded by the US government. The total research funding for 2009 was 54.8 billion dollars (much more if you include all R&D). A breakdown by agency of total R&D shows that the NIH (National Institutes for Health) funding is 28.5 billion while the NSF (National Science Foundation) is 4.1 billion.

There is general agreement that this expenditure is an investment on critical intellectual infrastructure for our nation and is vital to our competitiveness and standard of living. The government certainly has the right, and in fact the duty, to ensure that this money is well-invested. Government oversight is therefore understandable. Inevitably, however, politics is likely to intrude.

Representative Lamar Smith has been developing legislation that would in effect replace the peer-review process by which grants are currently given with a congressional process. Rather than having relevant scientists and experts decide on the merits of proposed research Smith would have politicians decide. It is difficult to imagine a more intrusive and disastrous process for public science funding.

Superficially some of the language of the bill may seem benign and reasonable. The draft bill calls for all research to be:

(1) is 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) is the finest quality, is ground breaking,  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.

The first two criteria sound reasonable at first – that the research is of some practical use. What this is, however, is a broadside against all basic science research. For optimal effect, scientific research needs to be balanced between speculative research, basic science research, translational research, and practical research. You can’t have all research be designed to lead directly to a practical application. You need sufficient basic science research to feed into that last step in the development process.

It can be difficult, however, for non-scientists to understand the relevance of abstract basic-science research. Often it is not even clear how such research might translate into a practical application – scientists sometimes are just curious and want to figure out how things work. It is often exactly this kind of research that leads to unexpected advances with very practical applications.

I have noticed, however, that researchers have become reflexively good at making up plausible-sounding possible applications for their basic science research – as if they have to constantly justify their research. Every basic-science study that looks at viruses, therefore, may one day cure the common cold. Anything dealing with cell replication may be a cure for cancer. Any materials advance will lead to supercomputers or superlight vehicles. All brain research, apparently, might one day cure Alzheimer’s disease.

I would love for a scientist to say something to the effect of “I have no idea what, if any, practical use this research might lead to, but the knowledge is really cool”. I guess you just don’t say that to a grant committee, however.

When those providing the funding insist on an immediate practical application, they put their thick thumb on the scale and affect the balance of research, shifting it away from basic science. This may have the effect of actually slowing scientific progress. Resources (researchers, institutions, subjects, etc) follow the funding. They have no choice. It’s appropriate to have broad goals for research funding, but it’s counterproductive to dictate how those goals should be achieved.

This can happen with private funding as well. I have seen it happen with disease research. Private charitable organizations raise money to research a disease. The organizers want that money to go to research that will directly benefit patients (who are often their primary donors). But if this prematurely pushes researchers toward clinical studies when we don’t have the basic science sufficiently worked out yet, you end up wasting a lot of time and resources on dead ends.

The third criterion may sound like a way to avoid waste, but it is hopelessly naïve about how science progresses. Duplicative research is a good thing. One reason is that independent replication is vital to scientific advance. That provision looks like it was written by someone who thinks that a single study is sufficient to establish a scientific finding.

Second, it often makes sense to tackle a problem simultaneously from multiple angles and theories. Non-scientists should not put themselves in the position of picking scientific winners and losers before the research is even completed.

The bottom line is that there is no easy formula or algorithm for deciding what research to fund. You can have criteria, but applying those criteria requires intimate knowledge of the research area, of research in general, and the background science. Peer-review by a panels of experts is the best method for making such decisions.

As expected the NSF was very critical of the proposed legislation to replace this process with a more political one. In addition to the draft bill, Smith has written to the NSF requesting information on specific grants with which he has issue.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, who also sits on the science committee, wrote a letter to Smith complaining about this request:

In the history of this committee, no chairman has ever put themselves forward as an expert in the science that underlies specific grant proposals funded by NSF. I have never seen a chairman decide to go after specific grants simply because the chairman does not believe them to be of high value.

She hits the nail directly on the head – oversight of science-funding by politicians does not mean that they present themselves as scientific experts above actual experts in the field.

Optimally efficient and effective scientific research requires a certain degree of intellectual freedom. It is legitimate to require transparency and accountability, but not micromanagement. There needs to be a certain insulation between the political process and the scientific process.

The worst aspect of this proposed bill is that it would throw the door wide open for political intrusion into public science funding. Every Senator or Representative with an ideological ax to grind could harass and impede funding of undesirable research.

Let’s hope this bill dies an early death.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation

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