Science: Funding and Morals

William Tivol tivol at
Tue Jan 23 17:27:17 EST 1996

Gregory R. Harriman (gregoryh at wrote:

: Alexander makes an important point here.  Much of the discussions in this
: thread(s) have been focused on the nefarious, ne'er-do-well, incompetent
: scientists.  Notwithstanding the fact (IMHO) that such a perception is
: overly pessimistic (glass half-empty rather than half-full); many of the
: problems we find in science today are a reflection of a larger problem in
: society.  Priorities of society (ie. what gets rewarded and what doesn't)
: are in many respects grossly distorted.

	The priorities of our (USA) society are decided by what people are
willing to pay for.  True, the benefits to society would be vastly greater
if teachers were paid a lot and (e.g.) Michael Jackson earned only a little,
but the truth is that many people will pay lots of hard-earned $$$ to see or
hear a rock star, so Sony only pays MJ according to what it can earn from him.
Part of the problem is a time lag.  If all teachers (or scientists) went on
strike, they would not be missed for years--perhaps generations.  There is no
good way for markets to assess such future values accurately, so education
and research have to become common enterprises.  Unfortunately, the nature
of governments is also very short-term, so such admittedly valuable comodi-
ties are undervalued.

:  Thus, we as a society spend
: millions, no billions, on all kinds of decadent activities (no need to
: elucidate here) and at the same time pay teachers, firemen , policemen,
: etc. barely a susbsidence wage, not to mention inadequate funding of other
: socially desirable activities.  If one wants to address the problems in
: science, one needs to do it in the context of the greater problems in
: society.

	These are very complex problems, but you're right.  The problems
have to be dealt with in their full complexity in order to find the solu-
tion.  The best way to do this is incrementally (and, at least, pseudo-
adibatically).  All tentative steps need to be reversible, or nearly so,
otherwise the unintended consequences will make the "solution" worse than
the problem in many cases.  How to make changes slowly enough not to worsen
things, but quickly enough to get real change in a reasonable time is very
difficult.  There are no easy solutions.  I think the best way to go is to
attack the problem on many fronts, but incrementally.  Thus, start to phase
out exceptionally high grant support in favor of more broadly distributed
support, teach ethics and start to make the system safer for whistle-blowers,
so that there will be some examples where unethical behavior was punished
rather than rewarded with large institutes/salaries/etc., read the publica-
tions of the prospective hires instead of merely counting them, and so forth.
It is not important whether the specific steps I suggested are the ones fin-
ally instituted, and I claim no special wisdom here.  In fact, I suggested
steps applicable largely to research; analogous steps for society in general
would be to have smaller spread between CEO and worker salaries, less politics
and more of what is good for the company/country being rewarded, etc.
	I hope none of our adversaries ever manages to institute such rational
social behavior.
				Bill Tivol

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