TRUTH about US R&D SPENDING from BRITISH NATURE

Michael S. Straka mike.straka at uchsc.edu
Fri Apr 19 13:23:23 EST 1996


On 19 Apr 96, M <anon1167 at nyx10.cs.du.edu> wrote:

>Yes, but it would also do away with a lot of junk research, findings that 
>are of no concern to anyone, and are only done because the investigator 
>needs to carve out a niche (be different enough from everyone else to get 
>funding, but not too different to jeopardize funding) to keep getting 
>grants to keep their soft-money job.

How does one recognize which areas of research will be junk and of 
no concern to anyone?  More importantly, how can one predict which 
findings will be important and/or have far-reaching implications?  
Clearly, some things are more urgent than others, at least from the 
standpoint of general human survival, such as AIDS or Ebola.  Other 
diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer have timeframes of 
urgency that seem somewhat expanded compared to AIDS (in my view).  
And issues such as overpopulation, global warming, and the 
colonization of space have even longer frames of reference.  As I'm
sure you are aware, it is not always immediately clear what the 
potential benefits of particular research results may turn out to be. 
Sometimes, results in one area lead to advances in another.  

I agree with Bert, Art, and Troy in saying that gov't funding is
a very important and necessary source of support for the conduct of
science in the US (a necessary evil, perhaps, but necessary 
nonetheless), and that a realignment of priorities is needed to 
maintain its vigor and productivity.

As for one carving out a niche for oneself, ya gotta do what ya 
gotta do!  The present system has forced scientists to adapt or get
out, and carving a niche is but one adaptation.  Would you refuse
a grant rather than work in a less glamorous field?

>>be able to justify the expenditures needed. A large number of good things 
>>came out of basic research that was government funded. Most 
>
>Hey, you've just come up with a great new slogan for the US government!
>"The Government - It's not all bad"

Well, it's the only one we've got, and the way it's set up, things 
CAN be changed, with enough effort.  There ARE things that could be
done more efficiently and with more vision, particularly in science.
You already know that the gov't (via the budget process, and thus via 
our representatives) decides how much money to throw at the various 
issues confronting the US.  Keep in mind that it is scientists at NIH 
and NSF who control how the dollars we do get are allocated.

>>non-government (i.e. industry) can't see more than a couple of years into 
>>the future and usually much less (thats why they hire MBAs that run 
>>spreadsheets to see if they make ROI within 6 months, and thats the first 
>>and only question industry asks).
>
>As opposed to grant-funded researchers, who look ahead a couple of years 
>until the end of their next grant cycle.

It is not long after receiving an award before a scientist looks 
ahead to the next round of grant writing - could be a matter of months.  
That's the way the system is set up now; I and many others think it 
needs modification.

I think if the US science program were to convert to a system of 
private-sector support, it would want for dollars to a much larger
extent that it now does.  While there is dissatisfaction and 
frustration with dealing on the government's terms rather than on 
the merits of scientific inquiry, I can only picture it being worse
if science were to depend on the largesse of the public and/or
businesses.  True, there are numerous private organizations and 
agencies which round up and contribute millions to various diseases.  
But can you imagine all the public service msgs, ad campaigns, 
mailings, etc etc we'd have to endure to support NIH and NSF at 
current levels?  There might even have to be (shudder) celebrity 
Telethons for science!  Give to Jerry's Scientists!!
or some such degrading spectacle.  Furthermore - do you think the
US public will be willing to open their wallets for science when 
many are barely literate and the rest have little comprehension of
what we do?

No - I think we need to accept money from the gov't, and work at
changing the way the public looks at science.  Instead of some
dark, mysterious, smokey, bubbling cauldrons and tubes and wires,
with hideous monstrosities hooked up to them (a la Frankenstein), 
we need to explain what we do when there is opportunity, eg, 
going into public schools for simple demos, giving talks, writing
articles for public consumption - simple stuff which is easy to do.
You may laugh, but I am convinced that most of the public has 
little or no idea what we do when we're at work, and that reaching 
out with simple explanations may go a long way toward influencing 
people whom to vote for or write letters to.  Naive and simplistic?
Maybe.  What can it hurt?  Perhaps in 10 or 20 y, we'll have a 
public more inclined to vote for pro-science reps.  Meantime, while 
we write that next grant, we also have to work at improving the 
educational system, modify the grant review/funding process, figure 
out how to best guide would-be scientists through the grad sch/postdoc/
job hunt grind, etc etc...

- Mike Straka, PhD
Instructor, Dept Pediatrics
UCHSC, Denver




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