Scientists and the economic crisis yet again

David Bruggeman’s sharp comment is worth reprinting in full:

From where I sit, both Stilgoe and Macilwain are attempting to remind the community of two things.

First, the large opportunity they are missing to be opportunistic. If the changing political environment changes the emphasis in what funders are looking for, researchers (at least those who eventually get tenure) tend to exploit those trends. If you go back a decade, researchers adapted to the increased emphasis on security in part by trying to fit their work into the ‘new normal.’ That’s not happening now.

Science and technology advocates are appealing to the soft bigotry of low expectations: they always complain about funding, so that’s all science and technology policy is about. I work in science and technology policy, and funding is at most 5 percent of what I work on.

Secondly, science and technology advocates, frankly, are rubbish at doing anything to improve themselves or the research enterprise. There’s no questioning of the status quo, no conception of doing things differently than before. We could use a little creative destruction and the economic crises provide the possibility. Does the post World War II method of organizing, funding and performing federal research still make sense?

Of course, since the folks in the U.S. failed to properly manage a damn thing after the NIH doubling effort ended and the system couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to a decline in the rate of growth for funding, I expect most will ignore the new reality of flat or declining funding (not rate of growth, absolute dollars) and pine for the good old days of excess building capacity and way-too-long periods of time as postdocs.

But hey, if we’re just an interest group, no problem. We’ll just do like everyone else and continue to think our ‘successes’ of the last decade validate our tactics and strategy. My mind still boggles at the persistent lack of imagination amongst those that were supposedly encouraged to conduct original research as part of their ‘training’ in science and technology.

There’s a lot to unpack here: scientists’ response to a changing environment, the content of S&T policy, improving the research enterprise, and the early 2000’s doubling of NIH funding. I’ll attack these points in turn.

I first question whether funders will change their priorities, and if they do, in what direction. Republicans have historically supported basic research at the expense of applied, a tradition the leading Republican candidate maintains. Obama consistently advocates for doubling basic research, Bush II also called for more science funding, and Clinton started the NIH-funding binge to begin with. It’s not at all clear that a “new normal” is upon us anytime soon.

Along those lines, I’m not sure the DOD-analogy applies. I’d love to see a more fine-grained analysis, but I get the impression scientists reoriented their priorities after funding became available. There was no period of introspection that led to scientists’ wanting to protect the nation. Rather, they saw some money and went after it. That’s why I suggested new funding streams would change scientists’ behavior more than anything else.

And since funding is the life-blood of scientific research, we should expect when S&T advocates to focus efforts there. They advocate on behalf of the research community, not science writ-large. People like Bruggeman and (to toot my own horn) me fill other necessary roles. We recognize science is more than research and policy is more than funding. Researchers have other concerns.

As for creative destruction, I suspect it rarely occurs with the consent of those being destroyed. I welcome David’s input on this as his knowledge of economic history is much greater than mine. But as I understand Schumpeter, external pressure and competition induces creative destruction. If the economic crisis won’t produce such pressure (and again, Presidential statements don’t support that view), then that pressure has to come from somewhere else.

This is getting long already, so I’ll close with a couple points. First, I largely agree with Bruggeman’s goals. I would love scientists to reexamine their priorities and question the status quo. But it’s not easy for them to do so. The neuroscientists I know are well aware of the funding dynamic Bruggeman describes. But they also know getting tenure means publishing papers and receiving grants. Successful grants tend to focus on narrow research questions and call for grad students and post-docs, perpetuating the the PhD bubble. Even if they wanted to change, they couldn’t do so without sacrificing their careers.

And that’s why I harp on interests so much. I’m not sure the policy community appreciates that scientists are simply acting in their interests. Us in S&T policy have to deal with this reality and propose practical solutions.


  1. For better or worse, it appears to me that science and technology advocates are simply arguing for the interests of individual scientists (generally speaking) rather than the scientific community (or they conflate the interests of individual scientists with the interests of the scientific community). I think this is true even without considering issues of public return on investment. There’s no pressure to increase the acceptance rate for grant proposals. There’s no serious pressure to reduce or share administrative costs in ways that makes research cheaper. There’s no pressure to change how academic research is staffed so you don’t need a Ph.D. to do work that really only requires a master’s or bachelor’s degree in the field.

    None of the above requires shifting emphasis to applied from basic. None of the above requires new funding streams in the sense of grants in the next multidisciplinary -omics field. It requires looking at the process of federal funding and implementation of research to see how financial and human resource costs could be reduced. Maybe there’s money in NSF’s Science of Science and Innovation Policy program for this, but the program solicitations suggest it isn’t a priority.

    I think the policy community expects science and technology advocacy groups to act in the interests of their members. Unfortunately, the interests are defined very narrowly – more money and more grants to support individual scientists. And the policy community really doesn’t feel that it can or should be more explicit in telling the research enterprise that it needs to reorganize; that it should try and figure out how to produce more or the same ‘research’ with the flat or declining funding that’s coming. This is a failure on everyone’s part.

    I think you characterize creative destruction properly. It’s not clear to me how it might operate differently in an area that is more of a public good than a private sector industry. Adopting variety in funding mechanisms (more than just traditional peer review grants and targeted group set-asides) could help.

    We appear to be entering a phase where there may be nothing left to lose from experimentation. If researchers are unwilling, I’m not going to be sympathetic when they get frozen out. They don’t have to start looking at different kinds of research questions, they need to look at doing the same work with less money. We need to look at encouraging such thinking.

    1. Thanks! This was very helpful. I see what you’re saying better now. For what it’s worth, I agree with your specific suggestions. But we’re still left with how to generate the pressure so that it generates the proper response (change your ways rather than digging deeper). Maybe a Congressional mandate that funding increases be tied to specific changes? Maybe pilot programs at select universities or fields?

      I guess I have more sympathy than you because I personally know many of the people struggling with these funding/PhD production dynamics, but just don’t know how to proceed. So I’d put a bit more emphasis on the policy community to reach out to practicing scientists.

      I think your analysis of S&T advocates’ defining their interests very narrowly is spot on.

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