RESEARCH $$$: Reply to Diane Peapus

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Fri Jun 16 11:31:42 EST 1995

On 16 Jun 1995, diane h. peapus wrote:

> Greetings:
> 	I think that the subject header of this thread brings up a good
> question.  Does anyone have any data on how much of the congressional
> budget to the NIH and NSF goes to research, how much goes to national
> administration and how much goes to overhead?
> 	This question has become a flame of scientific philosophies,
> when the congress only cares about balancing the budget.  Possibly 
> there are areas which can be cut without touching research money?
> 		diane h peapus

Dear Diane & others: 

It is certainly natural that you raise the question about
the administration costs, overheads, etc - many people tend
to believe that these are the major articles where the
(overwise "research") monies are wasted.

Of course, you can get perhaps some figures to this effect
(very likely, they will be largely irrelevant and/or misleading
anyway), but this will NOT address the MAIN problem. 

The MAIN problem of the research funding is NOT the Congress
(or the Parlament - as in Canada), and NOT the people like
Gingrich but the RESEARCH COMMUNITY ITSELF which is internally
divided by the permanent, fierce grantsmanship feuds among 
its own members.

"No kingdom divided upon itself will withstand".  

Even the NATURE magazine is evolving towards 
appreciating this. From its recent Editorial:

"... it is mistaken to suggest that the system of
research support can only be made more efficient if
the competition for research funds among researchers
(sic: internal feuds ! - AB) is made even more

"What the US research enterprise really needs is
not a tighter competition for research funds, 
but a looser one"

(Nature, 25 May 1995, p. 263)

It is, of course, easier (and customary) to blame others
(this time - Congress, greedy politicians, etc) than to 
try to clean your own house first - yes, this is a tough 
job - but unless we start it here, and on OUR OWN TREMS

(downplaying "competition", reforming the peer review
system, moving from funding "proposals" [promises] to
funding RESEARCHERS, etc),

our efforts against "funding cuts" are more than likely
to be futile, and whatever (still "excellent") research
may be presently supported by NIH/NSF/NSERC/MRC, etc will
likely follow the same hiking trail as the Superconducting 
Supercollider in Texas (R.I.P. in Oct.1993).  

I attach a short earlier newspaper column on the matter: 
TORONTO STAR, September 20, 1994, page A21 
                 TALKING POINT
     By Alexander BEREZIN and Geoffrey HUNTER
             Special to the Star

  A strong university system is an economic necessity. The 
quality of public education and medical care, creation of new
high-tech jobs, social and cultural development all have
numerous links to academia.
  A vital part of that system is academic research and it's
a part that is not very costly. But right now, university
research in science and engineering in Canada is having
relatively little impact on industrial innovation and job 
creation, and it's because of the way research funding 
is handled.

  With about 10,000 Canadian professors in science and
engineering, the over-all $ 500 million budget of the 
federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of
Canada (NSERC) seems to be generous. And yet, NSERC constantly
cries that its' being underfunded, and uses this as a pretext
to deny any research support for almost one-third of all
eligible professors. 
   Its funding policy is based on a complicated, conservative
and secretive peer-review - assessment of your work by your
competitors - which tends to eradicate risk taking. The policy
of selective funding (and often overfunding) of only those
proposals which carry a clear, up-front promise of "success"
coerces many scientists into suppressing their truly creative
impulses and into proposing only sure-fire projects.
   Real progress in science and technology is unthinkable
without significant risk-taking. The lack of it is also has 
a highly discouraging and morally corrosive effect on students
aspiring to become part of "big science". What young people find
on campuses is a perpetual rat race of professors to remain
funded by doing primarily "safe" science.

   How can the system be improved ? First, the loudly chanted
idea of excellence in research should be dismissed as misleading.
It is the originality of research, not its mythical excellence,
that benefits by its industrial innovation.

   Much of technically excellent work is, in a long run,
relatively unimportant. Most breakthrough work of the past was
not perceived as "excellent" by contemporary peers. Yet the
Conservative government's program of Centers of Excellence
has received such high political acclaim that it amounts to a
blasphemy to critisize it. Still, it is proper to ask where
all the massive "excellence" IS that was supposed to flow
from it: Do Canadian taxpayers really get a fair social return
for supporting multiple and competing Centers of Excellence ?

  These are among the questions that lead to the formation 
recently of the Canadian Association for Responsible Research
Funding (CARRF). More than 150 professors, funded and unfunded
alike, have joined the group, representing virtually all
academic disciplines from right across the country. The goal
of CARRF is to support an open public discussion and 
criticism of research funding policies. 

   NSERC's idea of peer-review selection sends the whole
university community in the wrong direction of trivial 
pursuits rather than risky exploration of truly unknown 
domains. There is enough money in the system to fund all
(active) professors, at least at the base level. Otherwise,
their talents and expensive training are wasted.

   The shameful apartheid of Canadian researchers into "haves"
and "have-nots" seriously diminishes social and economic impact
of our universities. Unless this policy is reversed, university
research is bound to slide below international standards,
notwithstanding all the consulations and glossy policy 
Alexander Berezin is a professor of engineering physics
at McMaster University, Hamilton. Geoffrey  Hunter is a
professor of chemistry, York University, Toronto. Both are 
members of the executive council of CARRF.

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