Teaching basic lab skills
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The Future and Funding of Science

I was talking with friends over the holiday about the future of science and how it might one day be funded. Since it'll be ten years before I'm proven wrong, it seems like a good topic with which to start the new year.

First, I believe that everything in the next fifty years is going to be shaped by a bunch of bills coming due at the same time. Thanks to our generation's selfish dithering, global climate change, resource depletion, drug-resistant diseases, the Sixth Great Extinction, and aging populations in the industrialized world are all going to hit us at more or less the same time. Research that doesn't directly address one or more of these problems will be sidelined in favor of research that does—basically, trips to Mars and LHC-style "big physics" will be starved so that climatology, ecology1, materials science2, and health care can be fed.

Second, research will be much more directed: "grand challenge" initiatives modeled on the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program will receive the lion's share of funding. Many scientists will complain that freedom of inquiry is disappearing, but this doesn't mean that fundamental research will disappear3. It does mean, though, that politicians who represent the interests of the people who fund research4 are going to become a lot more demanding than they have been, which means that scientists who can explain the relevance of their research to non-specialists are going to have an ever-greater advantage over those who cannot.

My final "prediction" is more of a hopeful proposal. Today, researchers are funded for what they propose to do and what they think they're going discover. I would like to see them funded based on what they have done, i.e., on their track record. Rather than getting money for what she might do next, a researcher would receive a grant as a reward for having just done something well, and could then do whatever research she wanted next. Her first grant would be a reward for having done an interesting PhD; after that, she would be funded based on her track record of doing interesting things, and trusted to keep doing such things without having to predict in advance what the results were going to be5.

As James Scott argues in Seeing Like a State, big enterprises always favor uniformity over productivity. If scientific research is going to be more closely directed (which I believe is inevitable), we need mechanisms that will let researchers chase unicorns. I'm sure the model I'm proposing will fail in perverse ways—every incentive scheme does—but I think it would be a good counter-balance to the necessary focus on grand challenges described above.

Notes:

  1. People are going to try simple-minded solutions to environmental problems (up to and including tweaking genomes). After the Law of Unintended Consequences has bitten them a few times, they'll start trying to figure out how the complex system we live in actually works.
  2. Because we're going to need to use cheap atoms in new ways to deal with resource shortages.
  3. Historically, the Second World War was a tremendously productive period at all levels of scientific inquiry precisely because scientists were working toward specific goals. Claude Shannon and the invention of information theory is just one of a great many examples of what happens when scientists don't take a "choose your own adventure" approach to research.
  4. One reviewer of this post wrote, "This is an optimistic description of politicians. Isn't lobbying going to continue to run this show?" The short, cynical answer is that both statements are true: because lobbying runs the show, most politicians are steering research (and many other things) in ways that big money finds comfortable. This is our fault, since we have allowed those who like power concentrated to conflate the ideas of "consumer" and "citizen". The good news is, we have fixed this before—think the Reform Act, Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting, or the New Deal—and I believe we can do it again. In particular, I think that when the going gets rough, genuine public service will once again become expected and respectable.
  5. Another reviewer felt that this model would make science more conservative, since people would effectively be punished (through non-renewal of funding) when speculative projects didn't pan out. My counter-arguments are that this already happens (if your last project didn't produce any papers, your current proposal is going to be reviewed more critically no matter what its merits) and (b) many entrepreneurs face financial hardship or ruin if the business they start doesn't succeed, but they are (in my opinion) much more innovative and willing to take risks than most academics.

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