Science Is Not Baseball - Almost Everyone's A Winner, Sort Of
    By Michael White | November 8th 2010 04:45 PM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,


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    I like Nicholas Wade, and think that his latest NY Times piece on basic research is worth reading. However, I take issue with his overly simplistic characterization of how research works:

    Basic research, the attempt to understand the fundamental principles of science, is so risky, in fact, that only the federal government is willing to keep pouring money into it. It is a venture that produces far fewer hits than misses....

    If basic research is fraught with such a high failure rate, why then does it yield such rich economic returns? The answer is that such government financing agencies as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are like the managers of a stock index fund: they buy everything in the market, and the few spectacular winners make up for all the disasters.

    This is not right.* Wade goes astray in thinking of science in terms of hits and misses. Basic research is not like being at bat, with the occasional single base hit or home run being the exception in a sea of strikeouts.

    Most research is simply conventional and incremental. Most of the time it's not a miss, a disaster, or a failure - it's a small, sometimes not too surprising addition to our knowledge of a subject. Most research projects and NIH grants end in success, not failure - but the successes are usually small.  In fact, there probably aren't enough failures, because, unlike the venture capitalists Wade compares it to, the NIH is very unwilling to take risks in search of the spectacular winner.  Funded projects are the ones almost guaranteed to work.

    In any case, you can ask whether our big, spectacular successes are worth all the money we spend on smaller, incremental successes. But it's flat-out wrong to call most research a failure.

    *However, the individual researcher can expect weeks or months of failed experiments before finally figuring out how to get things to work. Most scientists fail on a day-to-day basis, but still succeed in the long run.


    He also has it backwards - large corporations don't invest in basic research precisely because as government ballooned in the 1960s, there was no need to invest as much.   The ratio of government versus private investment in research is not inverted because government filled a vacuum - if only any government were that nimble or smart - but because no one wants to pay for things directly when they can pay for them indirectly and share that cost with multiple taxpayers and other companies.   Then they can cherry pick the benefits.

    He also seems to not understand how pharmaceutical marketing works - he has this strange notion that large drug companies won't invest in start-ups because they are too risky.   They don't invest in start-ups because culturally start-ups will not do well with best practices created by giants.  If it were just a question of money any drug company could buy every start-up for less than they have to pay in buyout for one successful one.

    The part I do agree with him on is that we in California are going to lose $3 billion of taxpayer money on hESC research - but that's because it was enacted by voters to flip off George Bush and not because it was a good idea.

    It's true that failure is probably not the best word for what I think he was trying to say. I think his point, however, is that progress in science is slow and incremental, that much of what you try won't necessarily pay off, that picking winners doesn't work very well, and that single studies or findings are seldom "home runs" -- they're usually just very limited additions to our knowledge of a particular field. All this may seem obvious to a scientist, but it's very different from the way the media usually portrays science. If all your knowledge of scientific research came from reading the science section on MSNBC or listening to Fox Noise, you'd have a very different impression of how scientific research works -- which is why I think this is a good article (although I'm not really sure what provoked it -- did something happen last week that I missed??)

    Michael White's commentary is indeed correct in his characterization of most grant funded basic research. Grant panels favour "safe" research where there are a solid hypotheses and a wealth of preliminary data from qualified investigators. Consequently, most basic research is pedestrian and plodding, but steady in its progress. Unfortunately, this course results in more of the same and thwarts truly innovative research and breakthrough discoveries. If only the NIH's funding of basic research was a little more like what Nicholas Wade envisioned it was.

    The paradigm of basic research being "safe" may be about to change. I just saw a talk by Francis Collins at ASHG and he noted that the NIH is trying to set up a funding mechanism similar to DARPA. DARPA is known for funding some wild, out there stuff. If he can ram it through, it may push innovation. On a side note he also mentioned that in tight budget times the NIH may consider reducing indirects to institutions and force them to pay investigators salaries as opposed to support coming from the grant. That would be a bombshell that I imagine would send most university administrators screaming to capitol hill.

    It's rare that DARPA funds out there stuff, though people seem to think it is common - having competed for various DARPA grants in a previous life and seen every single one go to multi-billion dollar companies they are no different in my perception.  People do not understand that accepting government money means accepting accountability.   There is no modern Bell Labs going up these days because there is no need when the government wants to fund research and researchers 'like' being in a government system and culturally distrust the private sector.   But because the government requires accountability lest their programs be used in political 'why are we spending $500 million on X' campaign commercials, it will be safe research with predictable, quantifiable outcomes.
    It is true that the research about the fundamental principles is not really often bringing success, and it is bad that when something is coming, that there is not the feeling that it is worth doing it.

    Thanks for your clear take on Wade's article. I think Wade also went astray in several other respects that I discuss on my lab's blog including disparaging stem cell researchers.


    I'm alarmed that you list the NY Times science section as a favorite read even before this.    This classic sentence today in At Milky Way's Center, Scientists Find Big Bubbles of Energy (a rehashed press release anyway) is downright funny were it not in a paper people still seemingly think is relevant:
    “Wow,” said David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton who was not involved in the work.
    I like the Science section of the NYT in general.

    Believe it or not, sometimes us scientists do say "wow" when we see surprising data, but I have to agree that that "Big Bubbles" article was not good.