16 February 2013

Faith Based Science Policy

Brian Cox is a physicist and largely due to his ubiquitous presence on the BBC, he is the Generation X face of British science. He also has more than a million Twitter followers. Today he tweeted this:
Readers here may recall my critique of Geim's piece, which centered on his wish for an asteroid to be on a collision course with the Earth in order to motivate policy makers to open their wallets for scientific research. Apparently someone must have called Cox's attention to my critique, because Cox responded to me today with a couple of tweets:

Despite the smiley, Cox's tweets betrays two conceits of the scientific establishment that hold on both sides of the Atlantic. One is that "basic research" is desirable -- not as a matter of evidence, but as in Cox's words, as an axiom. The second is that social scientists, and science policy scholars in particular, exist to generate evidence in support of that axiom in order to keep public funds flowing. Both conceits are problematic in science policy.

In a paper published in Minerva last year I explored the origins and symbolic significance of the phrase "basic research" (read it here in PDF).  In that paper I argued that the phrase originated about 1920 in the context of the US Department of Agriculture, where "research was the basic work" of the agency. The phrase was shortened to "basic research" which ironically enough meant what we today call "applied research."

Over time the phrase became part of the linear model of innovation, shown in the figure at the top of this post. The model is faith based, meaning that the relationship of basic research funding to societal benefits is taken as an "axiom" which often finds its expression in a misreading of economics. Scientists often demand a privileged place for science in government budgets based on claims that in "basic research" lies the key to growth and prosperity for all.

Unfortunately, the relationship of so-called "basic research" and outcomes like economic growth and other societal benefits remains poorly understood. For instance, in 2007, Leo Sveikauskas of the Bureau of Economic Analysis surveyed the economy-wide returns on R&D (here in PDF) and found a complex picture at odds with the elegance of the linear model:
Returns to many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero . . . Many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all, and do not belong in investment.
The exceptions that he cites include federal R&D in health, agriculture and defense -- all instances of mission-oriented applied research. The issue is further complicated by the fact that economists don't really understand where economic growth comes from.

There is of course a parochial political dimension at work here as well, which limits a broader discussion of how to better relate research with societal objectives. Benoît Godin, the innovation scholar at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal, explains (here in PDF):
The problem is that the academic lobby has successfully claimed a monopoly on the creation of new knowledge, and that policy-makers have been persuaded to confuse the necessary with the sufficient condition that investment in basic research would by itself necessarily lead to successful applications.
The politics help to explain why public debates over science policy tend to devolve into simplistic appeals for more "basic research" funding for scientists, rather than a more sophisticated discussion of trade-offs within science, or even how it is that we expect that R&D funding will contribute to the promised societal benefits. Once you take the importance of basic research as an axiom, the need for science policy research on the role of science in society disappears, except as handmaiden to the science lobby.

Cox is certainly not alone in making a faith-based appeal for for science funding. Of course the great irony here is that scientists who appeal to the importance of evidence in the making of policy tend to forget that good advice when it comes to the public support of their work.

20 comments:

dljvjbsl said...

Beyond the idea of basic research as an axiom is the idea that it is only scientists who can make decisions on the allocation of research funds. According to this idea, funds should only be allocated by peer review and that any criteria other than that is invalid. Particularly the idea that one criteria should be the generation of wealth for society is strongly rejected commonly by the academic engineering researchers that I worked with here in Canada.

practicingscience said...

When supplying funding to a university, you can't just think about the direct economic return from scientific findings. That money is not only going to research, but into training the next generation of scientists, so it's not as cut and dry as "this research doesn't have immediate, tangible returns."

bernie said...

The WSJ today has a review of Stephen Budiansky's new book, Blackett's War. If the review is accurate it illustrates many examples of mission oriented r&d plus itpoints to the dangers of professions that presume that outsiders cannot significantly add to a field of endeavor.

The Right Wing Professor... said...

The comical thing is that federal research funding really is the currency of US science. Long before I got my first NIH grant in 1987, federal funding had become the primary measure of merit, almost to the exclusion of any other. In a mid-ranked university, a single investigator grant would get you tenure; two would get you early tenure. Nobody read your papers; they were too specialized. People sought external reviewers, but the reviewers themselves would mostly look at your funding. The SIG really was currency; if you had some other kind of funding, people would argue what it counted for in units of an NIH R01.

In my Department, in 2013, half the merit increase (and these days the only increases are merit increases) is decided based on federal research funding. Money, is necessary of course, to pay research assistantships, some of one's salary, and just to buy the materials equipment to do research. But it's also a talisman. Really successful scientists spend an astonishing percentage of their time looking for it, leaving the actual execution of the research to underlings.

Scientists can't explain this to the public, of course, because the public aren't part of the system, and wouldn't understand. So we have to find some sort of lame excuse, as Roger describes above. And we've never really had to sell the projects to the public or even their representatives, just to our peers, who are all, of course, part of the system.

With all its warts, and there are many, I still think a healthy level of science funding is a good thing, but why it is healthy needs far better articulation. Currently, scientific societies are having conniptions over sequestration, and I think what worries them the most is that funding will be cut, and no one will notice any harmful effects.

Brian Cox is a ditz, by the way.

eric144 said...

Cox is famous because he he is a bit cuter than the average science graduate, he has a cute regional accent*, but mainly because he played keyboards in a one hit wonder band called D:ream who's song 'Things can only get better' was used by Tony Blair in his 1997 election campaign.

I am not a big fan of BBC Cox but I admit I absolutely LOVED the song. I don't think Cox was in D:Ream at that moment, but he commented on this YouTube version 5 days ago.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIj-6fr2SlI

*His parents are bankers so the accent is a bit phony.


As far as R&D is concerned, he is connected with CERN and the LHC. The people that brought you the $9 billion particle that lasts roughly 10-22 seconds and appears as a decay pattern every trillion or so collisions (ish).

Arjuna said...

You're barking up the wrong tree on this one.

Applying a cost-benefit analysis to basic science similar to the kind that would be completely appropriate for say, deciding to build a bridge, is fundamentally the wrong approach. Basic science (or if one prefers to be even less polite, "curiosity-driven science") has an inherently high failure / null hypothesis rate. We know that. So what? We know that if basic research isn't done, the well of knowledge required to produce socially beneficial applied research down the road dries up. Just as the sun rises in the East every day, this is strikingly obvious and needs no further evidence.

For a relevant example of how NOT to think about basic research, look at the (largely privately funded) pharmaceutical industry. They have an extremely high failure rate, and because they apply rigorous cost-benefit tests, they are failing to innovate. It's understandable (even appropriate) that private companies should take this approach, but from the perspective of society it is a failure nonetheless. And it's also precisely why government funding has a critical role to play in facilitating that field of endeavor.

Obviously at some level there is such a thing as "too much" funding for basic science. We are nowhere even remotely close to that, and by suggesting that this is a currently relevant topic, you give succor to the enemies of science and to human progress. I hope you proceed carefully, Dr. Pielke.

(And to pre-empt any accusations: no, I'm not the recipient of basic science funding. I'm on the social science side. But inciting a scientific food fight is a very bad idea.)

Arjuna said...

P.S. Ad hominem attacks against Cox do not advance one's argument, and smack of petty jealousy.

(I'm speaking of some of the commenters, not Pielke.)

josephpmartino said...

In my 1992 book SCIENCE FUNDING: POLITICS AND PORKBARREL, I showed the extent to which Federal funding had corrupted the American scientific enterprise. Things haven't gotten any better since.

The "linear model" from basic research to social benefit was popular in the 1970s and 1970s. It had no empirical support then, and hasn't acquired any since then.

When I was stationed at Air force Office of Scioentific Research in the 1960s, I conducted a survey among past grantees to see if they knew of any application of the work we had funded to Air Force applications. Well over 100 came back with specific applications. However, I attribute that to careful selected of grantees in areas where basic knowledge was needed to solve specific Air Force problems. Without that careful selection, I doubt that much basic research would ever have turned out to benefit the Air Force.

bernie said...

Arjuna:
I have not read any ad hominem attacks against Prof Cox. Do you have an example?

Robert said...

Arjuna, " and by suggesting that this is a currently relevant topic, you give succor to the enemies of science and to human progress. I hope you proceed carefully, Dr. Pielke".

Curious why you reflexively refer to anyone who desires a rational conversation on the subject matter as enemies. Do you prefer the la la la , I can't hear you approach. Are you afraid of accountability?

Also, your suggestion that the pharma companies fail to innovate because of rigorous cost-benefit analysis indicates you know very little about the subject.
.

Arjuna said...

Bernie: "The Right Wing Professor" called Cox a "ditz". That is ad hominem.

Robert: I'm referring to certain ideologues in Congress, including some who serve as ranking members of the House Science Committee who are clearly incompetent to serve in such capacity, who are looking for some - any! - excuse to de-fund anything they do not understand (which is just about everything, but particularly anything related to basic science research). To credit some of them with the ability to conduct rational discourse is, well, let's just say 'excessively generous'.

While I suspect when it comes to brass tacks that Dr. Pielke and I would agree on a great number of things, by suggesting that standard cost-benefit analyses be applied to arcane endeavors that have high failure rates and yet are essential in the long-term to society, yes: he inadvertently gives succor to those who would do harm to the scientific endeavor. The amount of spending currently allocated to science is tantamount to a rounding error in the larger budget. In today's hothouse budget debate to implicitly call into question the legitimacy of science funding is possibly irresponsible. If I fail to characterize Dr. Pielke's views correctly then I hope he can clarify exactly what he does mean.

On one point I will strongly disagree with him: his equation of "axiomatic" - which is something that is self-evident and needs no further proof - with a "faith-based" approach. This is invidious and wrong. (And, I might add, axiomatically so.)

There are politicians and their followers who are too ideological and/or nihilistic to "get it", and Pielke should be cautious lest his point be easily misused by enemies of progress. I'm sure he doesn't want that on his hands.

Finally, Robert, you offer no evidence why my example of the pharmaceutical industry is wrong other than the fallacious argument that I "know little about the subject". Obviously no one will argue but that there is more to it than that, but perhaps you can enlighten us all. Meanwhile, in terms of argumentation your attempt to dismiss it so off-handedly is what's known as a fail.

bernie said...

Arjuna:
Are not your descriptons of certain ranking members of the House Science Committee 'ad hominem' attacks?

maxwell said...

This is an interesting topic of conversation and something that different levels of the scientific community need to examine for better justifying continued support of scientific research.

However, there are at least three problems with the argument presented above. First, Roger is confusing the success rate of the first step of the linear model of technology development with the overall ability of the linear model to explain the development of new technology. This is an easy mistake to make because, as one of the previous commenters notes, the first step in the linear model is hit or miss, with many misses when it comes to big breakthrough discoveries that lead to breakthrough technologies.

Second, while a relationship between economic growth and research expenditures may be hard to detect statistically in an econometric model, the fact that this entire conversation is occurring via a technology that appeared in the world due to heavy government investment in semiconductor processing, integrated circuit design, data search algorithm, fiber optic cables and countless other projects seems proof enough to me that such investments are tied to technological and economic growth.

Third, while a few scientists, like Geim and Cox, seem to fall within the guise of what Roger thinks of holding others out, as a physical science researcher, I find the opposite trend. In fact, as part of the reviews I've given to funding agencies, representatives have explicitly asks me to justify to them to their face what we're doing with their money...and I feel socially and professionally obligated to do so politely and in way that paints the overarching picture of advancement we are trying to achieve. So, to a small extent, Roger's argument seems to be looking for scientists with the opinions of Cox and Geim, irrespective of whether the 'scientific community' holds them, in order to challenge the validity of a model he claims is 'poorly understood'.

n.n said...

The precedent for axiomatic or faith-based "scientific" arguments has long been established. Every time that a "scientist" infers knowledge from outside a limited frame of reference, he risks conflating science and philosophy. Every time that a "scientist" exploits limited, circumstantial (especially when the condition is permanent) evidence, he risks conflating science and philosophy. Every time that a "scientist" cannot test his hypothesis, he risks conflating science and philosophy. This is fine, and inconsequential, when the risk is exclusively incurred by the "scientist".

The difference between private and public funding is that the latter is taken by force from a captive population. Since it occurs through involuntary exploitation, any venture funded through the government requires greater accountability than the former. Simple assertions of axiom or faith-based arguments are insufficient to protect the taxpayers from suffering exploitation by the government and its agents.

If Cox believes so strongly in the soundness of his assertion, then he, as a scientist, especially as a scientist, and because he presumably understands the scientific method, should demand proof for the validity of his statement. Furthermore, to ensure that he has a stake in this venture, he should be required to fund, in whole or part, any and all philosophical speculation.

It is dissociation of risk which causes corruption. It is dreams of material, physical, and ego instant (or immediate) gratification which motivates its progress.

From the short excerpt above, it is clear that Cox will not accept the challenge. He seems to believe that he is endowed with a superior, inscrutable dignity that lesser people lack. This may be true, but it may also be self-delusion backed by arrogance. In any case, he does not have a right to conduct involuntary exploitation of lesser people in order to confirm his principal axiom. Preservation of his self-esteem and ego are not and cannot be the principal issue.

PrajK said...

Arjuna: how do you know we are "nowhere even remotely close" to too much funding for basic research? Where's your evidence? It seems you've provided nowhere even remotely close to the evidence needed.

Granted, those who claim we're overspending on R&D also don't have evidence to backup that statement.

So let's not pretend you have some special insight into how much R&D is "enough." We may have already overspent, or we may be underspending. That's not a rational decision, but a political one. Your assertion doesn't follow from an exhaustive analysis, but simply reflects your personal, subjective belief that we need to spend more.

TLITB said...

@Arjuna said...

"While I suspect when it comes to brass tacks that Dr. Pielke and I would agree on a great number of things, by suggesting that standard cost-benefit analyses be applied to arcane endeavors that have high failure rates and yet are essential in the long-term to society..."



"[The pharmaceutical industry] have an extremely high failure rate, and because they apply rigorous cost-benefit tests, they are failing to innovate."



Could you source something to support this comparative? You imply the pharmaceutical industry has a similar or higher ("extreme") failure rate than basic research, yet you claim they are not doing anything as useful with this information as the public funded sector. How do you know?

This just seems like a matter of faith on your part ;)

The Right Wing Professor... said...

I don't think anyone would dispute that Cox is on the BBC because he's a pretty face and has a history of doing 'cool' stuff. A Ph. D in the hard sciences doesn't normally qualify one to speak for science. It wasn't intended to advance an argument; it was merely intended as an observation.

I do think the statement that we should accept as axiomatic that 'basic research' as good is as arrogant as any other argument from authority. So we have competing logical fallacies here. :-)

By the way, 'axiomatic' does not mean self evident and needing no further proof. It simply means 'used as an axiom'. Some axioms used within set theory, for example, are anything but self-evident.

The Right Wing Professor... said...

Now, to actual argument.

The amount of spending currently allocated to science is tantamount to a rounding error in the larger budget.

Well, no, US spending on R&D is 2.7% of GDP in 2011. Federal R&D spending is 5.6 % of total federal spending, according to Batelle. Those are by no means rounding errors.

In today's hothouse budget debate to implicitly call into question the legitimacy of science funding is possibly irresponsible.

Trying to win a debate by claiming one's opponent is ethically wrong even to argue with one is pretty unconvincing. I also find it arrogant and distinctly unpleasant.

Mark said...

We know that if basic research isn't done, the well of knowledge required to produce socially beneficial applied research down the road dries up. Just as the sun rises in the East every day, this is strikingly obvious and needs no further evidence.

No evidence, just a bald assertion of fact. With a following accusation of bad faith to anyone who disputes it. It's almost like Arjuna is parodying Cox's position in order to destroy it.

I'd like to investigate a little portion of that a bit further though; specifically the idea of "socially beneficial applied research" following from basic research.

Firstly, if basic research is not done, do we get non-socially beneficial research done? It seems unlikely, I have to say. The idea of basic research is that it has no target – if it does then it is already applied research. So really by definition basic research is not going to affect the beneficial nature of any follow up research. It's meant to be knowledge for knowledge's sake.

The idea that basic research is socially beneficial is profoundly wrong-headed. It can lead to atom bombs and chemical warfare easily enough. Indeed, it already has. If research is only permitted in certain restricted directions so as to be socially beneficial, then the whole idea of scientists being purely directed at learning knowledge is shown to be so much BS.

I suspect that Arjuna has let slip a more real problem. Arjuna, it seems to me, includes inside "basic research" a lot of research with decided social implications, which is covered with a veneer of pure science to whitewash it for general consumption. Research intended to show some political message gets called "basic research" in order to hide its very real political implications.

Because it is "basic research" it is as clear as night and day that it is wrong to attack it. So politically motivated scientists can claim that any attack on them is an "attack on science". Politicians who oppose a line of research are "anti-science" when, in fact, they are only against particular political strands.

I have yet to see any "anti-science" politicians attack anyone investigating cell division. Except, of course, when it is related to cloning. Because it is the social implications that are being attacked, not the scientific ones. But the scientists involved are quite happy to pretend that their science is unmotivated by anything but knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Scientist need to be more honest about the direction of their science. They cannot be a firm supporter of some political position, then expect that everyone will believe that their research is not motivated by that fact.

Finally, when people talk of "socially beneficial applied research" we need to watch them very closely. Because your version of "socially beneficial" may well not reconcile very well with theirs.

Christopher said...

The exceptions that he cites include federal R&D in health, agriculture and defense -- all instances of mission-oriented applied research.

No actually, a lot of health research does not have immediate direct applications. While the language of a grant will speak of the potential applied benefits in broad terms, the actual research is generally directed at testing a particular hypothesis or model (and in the mean time, collecting as much raw data as possible). Of course research must be nominally oriented towards studying a particular medical problem, but this can't actually be done without understanding what 'normal' looks like and this is what is actually being studied (and really you need two reference points to generate a model anyway). This research rarely leads to a direct treatment and isn't expected to.

Exploratory research that just generates data without test a hypothesis simply isn't funded.

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