Funding: Open the Books

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Wed Jan 24 11:28:21 EST 1996


[ some previous deleted ]

On 23 Jan 1996, William Tivol wrote:
> 
> 	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 solution.  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.  

BEREZIN:

Dear Bill:

Let's take more optimistic (and constructive) view.

Attacks on many fronts (from Napoleon to Khrustchoff)
is a rather pure approach. Also, we should not excuse 
ourselves by complacent "there are no easy solutions". 
There are, and many.

Let me suggest just one specific measure which is
technically VERY EASY to implement at virtually zero
costs (couple of secretaries can handle it in several 
weeks):

Put all NIH/NSF info on PUBLIC pages on WWW. This should
include CONVENIENTLY ARRANGED listings of ALL grants given 
by NIH and NSF (in Canada by MRC/NSERC). This info should 
include tiles, amounts and time frames of all grants and be 
accessible by the researchers names' (bith PI and 
co-applicants). [ so, by typing 'W.Tivol' I can find all
your funding history, same as by typing 'A.A.Berezin'
you can mine - I HAVE NO OBJECTION WHATOSEVER ABOUT THIS,
PROVIDED I AM GRANTED THE SAME OPTION IN RESPECT OF ALL
OTHERS ].  

(TIVOL): 
> Thus, start to phase out exceptionally high grant support 
> in favor of more broadly distribute 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.  [...]

BEREZIN:
The above public database will likely help addressing all
the above.

I think, one flaw which I now start see in your (largely
biomedical) system is that disproportionally much attention
is given to cases of the (alleged or real) 'misconduct', 
while the open database proposed above can help to pose 
much more common questions, not necessarily related with
any wrong doings. It will become easy (technically) to 
reaise questions what people ACTUALLY did with their money.

For example: "professor XYZ got for the last 10 years
5 millons dollars in grants from public funds [ list them ]. 
What is that s/he ACTUALLY discovered, developed, etc ?". 

In short, people will be needed to keep (updated) layman 
summary of what they actually achieved. This will likely
develop greater respect to 'small' scientists (who are
often beeing modestly funded, producing nonetheless a lot 
of good science) and will lead to gradual (perhaps, quick ?) 
errosions of old-boy networks.

Attached is our letter on this topic published last summer.
Of course, proposals are not developed at length in it, but 
it gives some political justification to the 
proposed openness. 

--------------------------------------------------  

RESEARCHERS SHOULD INFORM PUBLIC

(published in CAUT bulletin, June 1995)

[ CAUT = Canadian Assoc. of University Teachers]

Recent attacks by some politicians on so-called 
"useless" research in universities could likely be
avoided should we, researchers, care to increase
public awareness of what we are actually doing.

Among research projects which were recently ridiculed
in the press by the Reform Party MP Randy White was
a study on "Lie theory". It did not occur to the MP that
it was not a study of lies, but on a mathematical Lie
group theory. However, let's not shift all the blame to
the ill-informed members of the public. Why should we
expect public respect of our scholarly pursuits if we
ourselves show a disrespect for the public by failing
to explain the essence of our work in layman terms ?

We propose the following remedy. All university
professors active in research should prepare an
executive summary of their work written in layman terms
(as the great physicist Ernst Rutherford once said "any 
good theory should be explainable to a barmaid"). 

Naturally, such summaries should be updated as necessary.
The work required for their preparation is obviously 
minimal in comparison with the social benefit steming from
such summaries. It should be the mandate of NSERC - and
other major funding agencies - to keep an updated
(perhaps electronic) database of these summaries and have
it readily available to MPs and other interested members
of the Canadian public. After all, the public is paying 
the major portion of our research bill.

We believe that this measure could prevent, or at least
greatly reduce, uninformed comments and unjustified
conclusions that may be difficult or impossible to rectify
after the initial publicity. We are confident that the 
Canadian academic community will cooperate with this idea
and that this will contribute to the public's undestanding 
of the diversity of roles played by the university in our
society.  

Naeem Jan 
      Professor of Physics,
      St.Francis Xavier University,
      Antigonish, Nova Scotia

Alexander A. Berezin
      Professor of Engineering Physics,
      McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario  

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