Some Humility, Please...

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Sun Jun 2 13:28:53 EST 1996

Overall, I agree with a lot of what Bert
is saying. Few more comment, though, I believe
are pertinent (please see below).
Alex Berezin

On Sat, 1 Jun 1996, Bert Gold wrote:

> Human Nature, Scientific Discovery and Peer Review
> Monica Seles' stabbing and Nancy Kerrigan's thrashing were each angry, 
> jealous responses to competition which we all witnessed, in disbelief,
> in the past few years.
> Similarly, the brutal killing of Nicole Brown Simpson two years ago,
> and this year of two scientists:  Yakov Gluzman and Tsunao Saitoh evidence
> that human nature can be a powerful though dark force, at times
> more competent at evil than of good.
>                *                               *
> Conversations I have had with prominent scientists concerning reforming our
> current methods of distributing money, in the past two days, have more
> often than not cited 'Human Nature' as that force which prevents the
> system from being equitable.
> When I have said to them: "Yes, but our mission as scientists is
> to minimize the interference of 'human nature' in the process of
> scientific discovery", they have uniformly agreed, but have rejoined
> that reforming what is, is a hopeless task.
> My colleagues have suggested to me that it is a law of nature that
> 'the rich get richer' and that I am 'tilting at windmills'
> in my efforts to reform the current system.

> And yet, I believe that if I fail, they will have failed, because
> each of us shares that the current system is deeply broken.
>                 *                                 *
> "There is not enough money" each of my friends has told me; "To fund
> all of the worthy ideas which are brought for consideration."

This is the prime lie where most of the explanatory work 
(with taxpaying public and politicians) is due. The
system (especially, NIH) is outrgaeously OVERfunded with
equally outrageous uneqality of distrubution system. 
> "That is not true" I have been able to respond, recently, since it
> has become obvious that the NIH and NSF bureaucracy is bloated, and
> requires altogether too much paper shuffling for each dollar dispensed.
> On Wall Street, I have explained, many money managers routinely
> handle hundred million dollar portfolios.  Yes, they need auditors to help them sometimes, so they hire them on an ad hoc basis.  In Washington, noone
> is allowed to handle a hundred million dollar portfolio, and so it
> probably costs one hundred million to dispense one hundred million,
> noone knows...
>               *                                     *
> It is also not true that the system cannot be changed to be more
> equitable:
> It is a SIN that some PIs are receiving MILLIONS PER YEAR from one 
> federal agency, with NO support from private foundations.
> It is a SIN that one company, Affymatrix, Inc., is receiving MILLIONS
> this year from NIH. (No matter how good their silicon wafer technology,
> they should seek and receive much NON-governmental funding).
> It is a SIN that Canadian PIs will receive $ 22 million of US NIH funds
> this year and are not PERMITTED to HIRE AMERICANS.
> It is a SIN that the Howard Hughes Memorial Institute money, which
> could have provided a profound source for good, has been commingled
> with NIH funds sufficient so that it has little salutary
> effect upon US research.
> Similarly, it is a SIN that both Commercial Venture Capitalists, who behave
> like cattle in the way they move in herds, and Non-Profit
> Organizations, who are not substantially better,  RARELY have the spine to provide anything more than FOLLOW-ON funding for that initiated by NIH or NSF.
> It goes without saying that it is a SIN that there is no creditable,
> legitimate process for appeal when NIH or NSF fails to fund a GRANT.
> And it is a SIN that there is no effective punishment for those who
> abuse the system through dissemination of FALSE DATA or MISAPPROPRIATION
> of research funds.
>               *                                     *
> All my colleagues suggest that these are hard problems:  Perhaps too
> difficult to solve.  
> I believe that they are not!
> First, we must cap the amount an individual investigator can glean
> of federal funds, at perhaps $ 350,000 per PI per year.
> Suddenly, much more money will be available.

Somewhere, as a suggested rule of thumb, I have read that 
researching professor should normally be given research 
funding to conduct research which is roughly equivalent to 
his/her salary. Lets take as an average guidline of
proffesors' salary $ 60,000 (US). This will give an
opportunity for a researcher buy supplies, to have (perhaps 
shared) technician and 1-2 grad, student, attemd meetings,
etc, but will largely de-phase the present system of 
exploitation of the hoards of postdocs.

I would suggest the Cap for TOTAL (research funding per
prof per year) should be of an order of $ 100,000, with some 
extra funds available only in exceptional cases when a
reasonable PUBLIC case is made (certainly, under full 
openness and accountability). And don't tell me that's not 
enough - it IS enough if professors are working (primarily) 
THEMSELVES on the projects instead of buliding their
empires and power structures. Faraday and Paster worked
themselves, why the present profs can't ?

Of course, grantsmanship mafia does not want to hear
the truth and will continue attempt to ignore it or
dismiss it with their phony 'figures' on 'how expensive
science nowdays'. Gime break. 

> Second, we must do away with the anonymity of the peer review process
> which allows the easy shifting of responsibilty/blame and credit
> for appropriating funds.

The best thing which can (and MUST) happen here is
to remove the peer review (for papers and grants alike)
from the exceptions to the public information acts.
Withholding of information should be left only for
cases involving personal safelty (e.g. protection
of crime informers).

But in peer review case ANYONE should have a LEGAL
RIGHT to obtained all SIGNED reports (for his
or anyone else), work regardless of peer reviews 
like it or not. (of course, small processing fee
can be charged for this).

And don't tell me, that if the above is done
than 'people will be afraid to do peer reviewing'. 
Crooks yes, but the majority (honest people) won't. 
When in shopping malls are you arfaid of hidden 
cameras installed against the shoplifters ?
Science and secrecy (including peer review
secrecy) in incompatible. As clear as this.

> Third, we must allow investigators, at all stages of their career, and
> even without institutional affiliation, to apply for small grants,
> perhaps under $15,000 per year, using abbreviated applications,
> for exploratory, highly speculative research.

Yes, this is what Geoffrey Hunter calls "Research Base
Maintenance Grant". It probably should vary from
some $ 30,000 per year for biomedical researching professors
down to several thousands for people doing purely theoretical
(say $ 5,000 for a mathematician) and should be awarded 
on a sliding scale with minimum documentation required for
filing the request (e.g. recent reprints + 1 page brief 

Again, Fat Cats resist the idea of Basic Grants for
fear (founded) of erroding their power of control.

> Where will all the money come from for number three?  From doing number
> one and number two.
> You see, there is so much money being WASTED in the system now, that
> without ANY increases in funding there is enough to do what I recommend.
>               *                                  *
> Most will say "It cannot be done!".
> When I ask why, they will say "Because we need more money!".
>                *                                 *
> Six months ago, I spoke with Lee Hood, the William Gates Professor
> of Medicine at the University of Washington, and asked him whether he,
> as the most articulate member of the scientific community, in my judgement,
> would be willing to go before Congress and ask for more money for Science in
> the US.
> He said 'Yes'.
> When I wrote and told the head of the National Academy of the Sciences,
> Bruce Alberts, of Dr. Hoods' offer, he never wrote back.
> In Washington, when you don't write back, you mean "NO!".
>                 *                                  *
> Our President, Mr. Clinton, is not a forthcoming guy with respect to
> science.  He doesn't understand it.  He wants it to go away...

Being in science for 30 years and authoring some 100+ paper,
I can't pretend I understand it either (I mean, THIS, 
gransmanship-power structure, corporate-moral, dog-eats-dog
 'science'). And doubt any-one else can.
As Bert says, 'he (Clinton) wants it to go away ...'. 
This time, I concur with Bill. THIS science will
better indeed go.

> He likes Donna Shalala, Robert Reich, Francis Collins and Harold Varmus,
> and he hopes that they will do a good job keeping science quietly OK
> while he goes off and earns his Presidential pension.
> Drs. Shalala, Reich, Collins and Varmus wish to please their President;
> they wish not to offend:  And so they *do not* suggest what they all
> know needs to be done: 

> That American budgets for Science be increased.

That's where I would be cautious by the reason I explained
above. I think, its flately wrong, and the first (actually,
the only) priority is to change the DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM
without raising the total amount (likely, even cutting
it). In order to stay healthy, a weight loss (not an extra 
food) are usually recommended. Same is likely true for 
the (present day) gransmanship Mega-science. 

>                 *                                  *
> But, I think most of us here know, that science and health care
> in America, which are intimately connected, are in crisis.

Yes, but not because the 'lack of money'. But because
it (money) is in the wroung pockets.

> And, Clinton was elected, in large part specifically because he
> offered to help solve this crisis.
> And now, that he has abandoned his raison d'etre, but still likes
> the benefits which his nice oval office provides, he wants to
> be re-elected anyway.
> Now, that is human nature at work...
>                  *                                  *
> And so, my friends, we are about to embark on an election which will
> lead us into the twenty-first century.  With a guy at the helm who
> says whatever he thinks will make him most popular, and scientists
> chasing his coat-tails for their funds, saying whatever they need
> to say to glean from him simply a status quo.

>                  *                                  *
> I believe that it can be the other way around.
> That scientists can explain to the President and Congress what they
> must do to make the country healthy, happy and strong.

Weight loss program.
> Or, they can allow themselves to be continue to be led by those
> who do not know, other than by opinion polls, what it is that they
> should be doing.
> Scientists can be leaders, or they can be followers.

Our's (scientists') are exceptionally poor record
of being leaders. Even the best example we
have (from Einstein to Oppenheimer) was a rather
mixed case. Often scientists are not even good 
enough to be followers (of a just cause).

> Up until now, in the past several years, scientists have chosen the course
> of least resistence, which is to follow, and not to lead.

Conformism brings consistenly more personal rewards
than dissent. On a human level that's understandable.
And in any case, who's the first to cast a stone ?

> What will our future bring?

Agricultural Society
Technological Society
Information Society
Scienceless Society

> Bert Gold
> San Francisco

More information about the Bioforum mailing list