Basic research and personal responsibility

Dan Sarewitz has a rather provocative commentary in Nature this morning, where he suggests that proposals to increase basic research may be good politics, but questionable policy.

The headline alone is probably enough to get some science-advocates’ blood boiling, whether they go on to read the piece or not: “Double trouble? To throw cash at science is a mistake” does nothing if not throw down the gauntlet to an already sensitive science community.

Beyond the provoking banner, Dan raises  serious if uncomfortable issues – there must come a point where investment in science is balanced within a much broader social context, and the consequences of not allocating funds elsewhere are weighed against the benefits of supporting research – especially blue skies research.  But reading the piece reminded me of an associated debate which seems to get rather less air time – the personal responsibility that comes with government research funding.

It’s an inescapable fact that, for every dollar, pound or Euro that governments invest in research, someone, somewhere is getting less money to spend on what they think is important.  In some cases, re-allocations may have minor social consequences.  In others, reduced spending elsewhere in favor of science may be profound impacts on the lives of individuals – especially those at the margins of society.

This delicate and never-perfect balance of limited resources between competing needs is at the heart of policy making.  Resource allocation is never simple, always contentious and more often than not a compromise between equally worthy needs.  But this means that in a socially responsive society, every hard-won government dollar comes with a burden of responsibility – to use it as effectively as possible to improve the lives of the the people who the government was elected to serve.

Which means that government-funded researchers should be probably be asking themselves (repeatedly): “How does my work benefit the society that is supporting it?”  Or, of they are brave, “Are people suffering because government dollars are supporting my research rather than going elsewhere?  And if so, what should I do about this?”

The answers may be as metaphysical as “my research provides insight into the nature of reality” to as broad as “the new knowledge I generate enriches the human experience” or as practical as “my work will help cure cancer.”  But the important thing surely is to ask the questions – and to act on the answers that come back.

I’m an ardent supporter of government-funded science, and I strongly believe (I use the word advisedly) that basic research is critical.  But it is not a right.  Every hard-earned dollar spent on research is a dollar less for someone else to do some good with.  Which means that we need to be prepared as scientists to ask the hard questions, and to grapple with uncomfortable answers.

If we do, the result will surely be science that plays a stronger, more integrated role within society – irrespective of absolute funding levels.

12 thoughts on “Basic research and personal responsibility”

  1. Thanks for the post, Andrew, and in particular for pointing out that government funding of science is a not a right. A society that funds science should expect some form of accountability from the users of those funds. I think what such accountability entails remains an open question; hopefully the Sarewitz piece will stimulate discourse on the issue.


  2. I agree with the point that scientists need to be aware of the societal effects of their research funding. I think that is plainly clear to most scientists. In fact, with any proposal sent to the NSF/NIH/other agency, every scientist is REQUIRED to insert a statement of broader impact. If you cannot claim a broader impact, chances are exceedingly likely that you are not going to win funding. While most scientists, I believe, would rather do science for the sake of knowledge (science is FUN), we already MUST to acknowledge the impacts of our science by the funding agencies for our own sake. I think that more can be done to address the practice of extracting transformational and translational technologies from basic research. (This is where I think the main focus of Sarewitz’s articles should lie.) I also think that it may be misguided to just say that scientists shouldn’t take their funding for granted. As a new PI, I wouldn’t assume to do such a thing. And, I know from experience that most of us scientists certainly do not.

    1. True, there are often impact statements included in research proposals – and some agencies require subprojects that address social implications. However, too many researchers do this impact statement in a perfunctory manner that they are useless. And how many impact statements are broad-reaching sweeps with an ‘importance to the field of cancer, HIV, climate change…’ I think all impact statements should be published by funding agencies so that people can read what is being funded – at least it might get the applicants to put more thought into these statements.
      I know that I worry about how my research fits into the greater good and I have an idea of the possible impact – and yet, I often write those bland long-term impact statements. If i knew that people beyond grant review committees would read them, i’d do a better job with true knowledge translation.

  3. The timing on this is interesting as I am just coming from a new grantee program orientation where we were told over and over: we are accountable to the taxpayers and people are scrutinizing us so do good work and prepare for an intensely detailed audit of finances and progress. And this is for a worker safety training program, hardly basic research! One would think the social value of this particular program is self-evident, yet, as I wrote about on my blog yesterday, it was still attacked by no less than Rush Limbaugh as being a waste of money and a front for political agendas. It was a sober reminder that the work we think is important and socially useful on its face still needs to be communicated in a way that makes it value to society clearer.

  4. First of all the issue is worthy of debate.

    Second of all, accounting for expenditures and clearly understanding the loss / gain of specific groups is an administrated skill which we have not perfected. Scientists them selves have very little chance of obtaining the relevant data and even less of a chance to compile this data into an accurate form for debate. Nevertheless the issue has all the appearance of a charged and immovable emotional battle, nothing new.

    The solution to all of this, which of course is the last thing which will be up for debate, is the redesign of governmental wealth distribution system which harnesses upon the transparency and direct participation afforded via a technologically connected society.

    But then again, most politics is not really about advancing human interaction is it?
    It’s simply a civil system from which competition for those limited resources can take place legally. To say nothing of the perception of scarcity and arbitrary assignment of value in the marketplace… which is equally relevant in terms of “grants” given in the name of science.

    Also, shouldn’t the expenditures of the government be representative of the will of the people? Isn’t the processes of democracy such that what does become allocated is the agreed measure which was met by consensus of the people? Thus, why should the grant receiver question the appropriateness of their adventures when by all definitions they have the legal backing? If people are upset with how government spends money they should not be attacking the scientists, they should be attack those who set up the system of taxation and expenditure. Don’t take that to mean they should bring down taxes.

    I guess governments don’t trust people to spend their money for the good. Given that history has shown high amounts of exploitation and greed there is no doubt as to how this perception arose. However, we have new tools of communication and network administration that have never been available before. For private citizens to not capitalize on the political power of these new technologies to find methods of administering policy which is more in line with public opinion is an embarrassment that will forever keep me in agreement with high government expenditure on science and basic science.

  5. Very important point Andrew and tricky to imagine an individual scientist concluding ‘actually my work isn’t really that important in the grand scheme of things, I won’t go for that funding’! However, I sometimes look at the science and social science which gets funded, as a lay person, and marvel that someone thinks this is more worthy than a hospital bed or a nursing home.

    I have been pondering this personally very recently when putting together a funding bid to someone like the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation who have a choice between funding us and an after school project for people with learning difficulties or support systems for young carers. It focuses the mind let me tell you!

  6. @Hilary
    That’s a tricky slope you’re walking there. You could expand on this indefinitely. “Should we give money to study telomere shortening or should that money be used for high tech job training.” “Is it more important to make one missile or give money to little baby orphans.” I am sure that it does help you to focus your mind … but I feel rather helpless myself in these circular arguments.
    The difficulty in selling science (and one of its many beauties) is that you do not know what technologies (and certainly what economically viable) technologies will be drawn from your research activities. The scientists who make a difference are those who recognize an important observation when they see one.
    It seems to me that all of this chatter along with the Science Is Vital campaign in the UK comes down to two main points/questions. 1) How much should we be investing in science? Or, what is a realistic return on investment in science – in terms of patents/jobs/wealth produced? (New formulas like the STAR metrics hope to give a more quantifiable answer to that question.) and 2) How do we maximize the ROI? How do we help our researchers to pick out economically valuable observations/technologies from ordinary advancement in scientific knowledge?

  7. @Matt,

    Those questions are not the right questions to be asking by the campaign. In a world that is increasingly becoming globalized it is imperative that one recognize that not all measures which need the populations reckoning are solely of national concern. Indeed the very enterprise of science it self is one which seeks not to secure, in it’s purist form, the essence or description of the physical world for the use of only a select group, science is international and does best when it is allowed to spread and gain review.

    Science is a diplomatic tool with great leverage and the states should not treat private citizens as national assets which must prove their mettle.

    Then again, the question of R&D loss and gains has always been quite puzzling.

    Here is a little hint to maximize the ROI: increase the scientific knowledge of your populace.

  8. Your post reminds me of the following set of questions:

    Whenever danger exists of unnecessarily duplicating efforts to solve problems, ought not scientists try to discover whether the experiments have been performed elsewhere? Ought not all scientists be concerned about rapid publication and wide distribution of results, and even of experiments under way, so as to avoid waste? When a scientist in one field discovers evidence of methods which he cannot use but which may be useful in other fields, ought he not inform others about it? If a new and better technique has been discovered in one field, ought not scientists in other fields investigate its workability, or adaptability, in their fields? When a newly confirmed discovery in one field implies need for revising assumptions or conclusions in another field, do not scientists in the one field have a duty to publicize it and scientists in the other field a duty to hasten to inform themselves about it?

    Archie J. Bahm (1971)

    Combined with the restrained resources that you allude to, isn’t this a pretty clear case for science to give more open approaches a try, since these would be more resource-effective and lead to faster traveling insights?

  9. @Kyle
    While I agree with you that science is becoming increasingly globalized and the pursuit of knowledge truly stands to benefit from this openness, the funding of science still takes place at a national level. I don’t *like* the hyper-nationalist approach, however, this seems to be the reality of the current debate.
    And I also VERY much agree with you that public engagement and involvement in scientific pursuits is one of the most important things we should be encouraging and developing.

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