The mad politics of science funding

The Australian government’s ironic and perverse decision to better fund schools at the expense of already-promised university funding would make a good Yes, Prime Minister episode. Sadly such colossal stupidity is no laughing matter.

The UK’s coalition government seems similarly intent on damaging its University sector with huge increases in fees. In California, the best state University system in the world (including Berkeley and UCLA) has been severely strained with budget cuts.

The U.S. Congress managed to pass a measure to finance the US federal government through the end of the fiscal year. But the Senate version included an amendment that severely restricts the National Science Foundation (NSF) from approving grants involving “political science” unless the NSF can certify that they “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment was the work of Tom Coburn, U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.

More recently, one congressman asked John Holden, Barack Obama’s science adviser, why Coburn’s two criteria, or, at the least, the criterion that the research “would directly benefit the American people” was not a good and proper filter to apply to all NSF grants. Holden responded that “[It is] a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding.”  Since NSF  and its medical counterpart  NIH, are the largest funders of basic science in the world this is of concern to all of us.

Now Kenneth Prewitt of Columbia University has responded with a Science editorial. Prewitt notes that the U.S. (and everyone else) has “benefitted enormously” from the government’s partnership with scientific research, which has been carefully honed for decades. The restrictions mentioned above would be “a very large bump.” Prewitt outlines three risks from such a move:

  1. Such a move favors research focused on near-term benefits. For example, if the proposed restriction on political science funding had been implemented in the 1930s, there would have been little motivation to pursue research in Far East affairs; but when World War II began, such information was very valuable indeed. Notably, a generation later when the Vietnam war began there were no trained Vietnamese translators in the armed forces.
  2. Coburn’s criteria would weaken the way in which science builds theories. Research in one arena often has unexpected application in another. As a single example, he mentions that political scientists Herbert Simon and Elinor Ostrom received Nobel Prizes for their theoretical work on government decision-making under condition of uncertainty. Such work has proven broadly applicable in today’s terrorist-laden world.
  3. The third risk is to peer review. The proposed criteria would instill pressure to conform to Congress’ priorities rather than scientific merit. Such marginalization is already an issue for fields such as evolution, stem cells, climate change and alternate energy, research that is often opposed by members of Congress and their constituents.

Prewitt concludes that “Every scientist should vigorously contest any effort to apply those criteria more broadly.” Science today reports that a “compromise” may be in the offing!

To Prewitt’s remarks, we add that many of today’s pervasive applications in the arena of mathematics and computation were only dimly envisioned when they were first developed. To name but a few:

  1. Number theory and cryptography. One good example is the modern world of cryptography (e.g., used to conduct credit card purchases on the Internet), which emerged from research in mathematical number theory from the early decades of the 20th century. Even the practitioners of number theory at the time doubted very much that it would ever be useful. British mathematician G. H. Hardy, for example, once declared

    I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.

    He would certainly have to eat these words were he alive today.

  2. The fast Fourier transform. The fast Fourier transform or FFT is the basis of digital signal processing, which in turn is the basis of the enormously successful and pervasive world of wireless communications. Yet the FFT was originally invented by Gauss to analyze astronomical data in the 19th century, and was re-invented in the 1960s in part to analyze 3-D crystallography data.
  3. The Internet. The Internet was originally conceived merely as an experimental test to link some U.S. universities and laboratories working on research projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense (DARPA). If Coburn’s criteria had been applied at the time, it is highly questionable that Internet research would be approved, as there was no immediate defense requirement for such a capability. Today the Internet pervades society in the U.S. and other first-world nations, and is the cornerstone of a large fraction of the economy of these nations.
  4. Computer animation. Few could have envisioned early in the computer era that graphics and animation would have such a dominant role as it does today. Yet the history of this technology shows that it was originally developed at institutions such as MIT and the University of Utah in the 1960s, funded in part by government grants. Similarly, unfettered funds from Canada’s National Film Board for the quirky prize-winning short animation films of Norman McLaren in the 1960s led eventually but  directly to Canada’s current leading role in the commercial film and gaming animation world today (e.g., the many Oscar winning “Canimators”).

Certainly government-funded research should ultimately benefit society. But under what time frame? And who is to judge this benefit? Australian MPs, who are elected at most for three years? Members of the US Congress, who face re-election every two years? US Senators, who face re-election every six years?

We challenge our decision makers to list six really good outcomes of highly-targeted short-term research. The following would not be on the list: penicillin, melatonin, aspartame, post-it-notes, x-ray crystallography, medical imaging, solid-state electronics, nano-technology, new materials, WiFi, charge-coupled devices and fiber-optics, or most anything else that has really helped the quality of current and future life. Many of these had a large Australian contribution.

We pause to note that  science is international: all funding agencies foolishly demand  “expected benefits to our country”, yet all benefit from basic research done elsewhere. Thomas Jefferson put it best in a letter to Issac McPherson (August 13, 1813)

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Real scientific research, especially “pure,” longer-term research cannot be done on a 2-6 year payback schedule (consider the “conquest” of AIDS, and the “war on cancer”). Government bodies worldwide must face this possibly unfortunate but absolutely incontestable fact.

[Added 12 May 2013: An interesting article on this topic has been published in the New Yorker.]

[Added 21 Jun 2013: Similar issues are being discussed in Japan, which is considering “targeted research” in biomedical studies: Science article, and also in Australia: Australian government site.]

[Added 27 Jun 2013: Here is an article on similar difficulties in Canada: Science article.]

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