TCS Daily

Science Funding's Unintended Consequences

By Sallie Baliunas - July 15, 2005 12:00 AM

According to an eye-popping article in the June 9 Nature, about one-third of more than 3,200 polled U.S. researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health self-reported serious scientific misbehavior during the three years prior to being surveyed.

High responses for serious infractions came in categories such as "Failing to present data that contradict one's own previous research" (6% of respondents), "Changing the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source" (15.5%) and for lesser categories such as "Dropping ... data ... based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate" (15.3%). Because the answers are self-reported, the polling researchers think the results may be underestimated. The researchers speculate that misbehaviors are keyed to "perceptions of inequities in the [science] resource distribution" process, and argue that identifying those perceptions might aid the promotion of scientific integrity.

Since 1970, total federal non-medical research spending as a fraction of Gross Domestic Product has declined by about one-third. No formal history has tracked research misbehavior, leaving it impossible to say if ongoing stresses on budget allocation systems would partly explain current misbehavior.

Continual budget pressures, though, are transforming U.S. research and development. Funding agencies now weigh more heavily a proposal's aim toward practical applications, especially those with near-term payoff.

Dr. Steven J. Beckler, a former National Science Foundation official now at the American Psychological Association recently wrote, "A general panic is developing [at the National Institute of Mental Health], especially among social psychologists, because the institute's recent reorganization appears to be shifting funding away from basic research and into translational research."

Another earlier example shows that the problem has been ongoing: The President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) in 1999 judged federal investment in information technology then as "inadequate." While the "non-inflationary growth in high-technology businesses fuels U.S. world leadership" and generates "hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs," federal support "has been compromised by a shift toward applied" research and development.

PITAC explained that federal funding in its discipline is "excessively focused on near-term problems." To no one's surprise, agency "managers correctly favor their agencies' missions when budgetary pressures grow and they have to choose between long-term research and short-term mission needs."

A key, early step for today's Internet came in the 1970s when the U.S. Defense Department's Advanced Research Program Agency (ARPA) funded a project to transmit information packets among computers. Few researchers (except perhaps Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy or Vinton Cerf) or agency managers could have foreseen ARPANET's downstream economic penetration and societal integration.

Not many downstream applications can be credibly bulleted in a grant-request summary for research funding at the boundaries of the unknown. Hence, bottom-lining near-term, practical applications out of the sometimes serendipitous path to fundamental scientific principles would create public misunderstanding of the nature of basic research and development. In turn, that misunderstanding of science might undermine public support.

The modern emphasis on practical results where none can be foreseen leads us to think back to a young Professor Richard Feynman arriving to teach physics at Cornell University in the late 1940s. In his own words ("Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" pp. 157-8) he was "burned out" from the demanding work at the Manhattan Project, so he began afresh: "I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever."

Freed of the impediment of relevance, Feynman watched a plate tossed in the air in Cornell's cafeteria. While the plate lofted it wobbled, and the red emblem at the center of the plate spun around noticeably faster than the plate wobbled. To Feynman it demanded understanding in terms of basic physics of spinning objects. He ground through ladders of equations. And the answer surprised him because "the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate [at small angles]." That two-to-one ratio seemed extraordinarily basic.

Feynman explained this result to his colleague, Hans Bethe, who would win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 (two years after Feynman shared it with Julian S. Schwinger and Tomonaga Shin'ichiro) for his work in understanding nuclear reactions like fusion in stars. Bethe asked what the value of the exercise was. "There's no importance whatsoever," Feynman told him. "I'm just doing it for the fun of it."

But the fun unforeseeably led somewhere. "I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity ... and then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time). ... The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate."

That "whole business" of Feynman's Nobel Prize work is an astonishingly accurate depiction of how light interacts with charged particles such as the electron; in short, it is a fundamental insight into one of the cloaked secrets of nature's workings. Almost half a century since Feynman's discoveries, they remain cornerstones of theoretical physics.

Questions of how funding is distributed are as critical as how much funding. While the survey of researchers published in Nature did not directly address the factor of stressed resources, the authors write, "Certain features of the working environment of science may have unexpected and potentially detrimental effects on the ethical dimensions of scientists' work." Beyond that, the consequences of eroded resources may drive away Feynman-type thinkers. After all, science sometimes happens when unusual minds think about the seemingly unimportant.


TCS Daily Archives