Why Candidates Ignore Science: The Disconnect Between Research And Benefit
    By Hank Campbell | August 2nd 2012 05:27 PM | 20 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    For as long as I can remember, academic scientists have said that applied research is great - for someone else.  But for themselves, they want to do basic research and be creative and not have to worry about any applied / societal benefit.(1)

    But another election season is here and, despite $140 billion of taxpayer money being spent on research, no one in either party really gives a hoot about science topics and scientists are concerned neither candidate cares.(2)  

    Arizona State University Professor G. Pascal Zachary, writing at IEEE Spectrum, says the disconnect issue may be organizational rather than a disinterest in science and technology - not an Ivory Tower mentality of scientists, like the humanities has, but rather an arcane anachronism that forces scientists into a mentality that is removed from society. By letting people wander off on their own, funded by shadowy grant committees far removed from the real world and any application, we may be doing them and society a disservice.  As much as it will horrify the Science 2.0 community to read such a thing, making research topical to society may be more important than just adding more budget.

    Zachary makes a fine point that competition may be needed, we'll get to my take on that in a moment.  He cites The Human Genome Project and two California national labs (Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore) as examples of how competition helped - biologists at the Human Genome Project could not coast along as a job works program because an outsider (and now very much an insider) named J. Craig Venter and his group were going to beat them to it. The two national labs had to worry that military funding might go to the other. As a result, they stayed efficient and avoided duplication organically; one became more of a numerical group and one became the make-and-break people.

    He has a point, I have advocated prizes over grants in the past and they have some popularity but more as a sideshow than science, and scientists are already pretty competitive.  Only 10% of grant proposals are funded so I don't think throwing them into a pit to fight for food is the way to go.  It may instead be time, as he notes, to get rid of our 1950s-era Cold War-inspired science bureaucracies and create something organizationally that makes sense for the 21st century.  But who will do it?  Since science is too far removed from society, no candidate is going to campaign on it, so it is something of a Catch-22. Maybe the science community can proactively do what seems obvious and lobby for their own reform.

    Why do we have 13 different agencies doing 'STEM outreach' for billions of dollars, for example?  Why is the National Science Foundation funding energy, which should be the Department of Energy?  Why did the Department of Energy fund the Human Genone Project, which should be National Institutes of Health? Why, instead of creating esoteric research centers around diseases, does the NIH not take part of its $30 billion annual budget and set out to actually improve health care, the 'H' in its name? 

    Science may simply be too removed from the actual lives of the people it claims to serve to get enough mindshare from the public and therefore from political candidates.  But it isn't the fault of scientists, they are playing a modern game with 1950s rules.

    America has left the Cold War behind, perhaps it is time for government science agencies to do the same thing. But, as Zachary notes, that would require top-down leadership from a president as committed to innovation as they all claim to be; and that means forgetting about press releases that claim 'implications are for' some future awesome result (done by someone else) and actually instead streamlining around outcomes that will help people.

    How many scientists truly want to be important to society, with the good and bad things it brings? If so, it is time to change the strategy from handing candidates a true or false litmus test of prepared questions about 'science' to asking candidates how they will actually fix the system. There is no 'pure science' any more, unfettered research is a myth. Anyone who thinks it exists is living in a pipe dream haze. But by fixing the archaic system and embracing the benefits science can bring, 21st century science can be relevant in more than sound bites.


    (1) Really, I have never met one in academia who wanted to be held accountable for a result. I liken it to Air Force officers. Being in the Army, I would often talk to Air Force officers who would tell me about their various stations and some meeting they held with the commanding officer, who invariably said something along the lines of 'we are not as regimented and strict as a lot of other bases out there' - finally, I had to ask an Air Force officer who recounted this same tale, 'where is this mythical Air Force base that is so militarily-rigid that everyone keeps saying they are not like'?  It's still out there, assumed, like Bigfoot - along with academic scientists who want to do the D in R&D.

    Obviously corporate scientists, including the ones in many basic research groups, know that both letters in R&D are important.

    (2) Except some hot button issues. Republicans would like to put warning labels on climate studies and Democrats want to put warning labels on biology ones. And please spare me the "Obama cares" commentary.  He is as anti-science as Bush was, just about different things.  Scientists are already going to vote for him, though, so they lose critical thinking ability when it comes to their own political persuasion.


    Frank Parks
    You have touched on a subject that I have often wondered about.

    Science may simply be too removed from the actual lives of the people it claims to serve . . </blockquote>

    I wonder how many of the folks in the US are actually interested in science stuff.  Aside from god particles, genetic manipulation, neutrinos, and other headline grabbers, what interest does the woman on the street have in science?

    I know that you have said many times that interest in science has grown much in the last few years.  Has this interest grow faster than the population has grown?

    I'm beginning to think that real interest in science is located in pockets.  These pockets are likely centered around the research institutes and governmental or quasi-governmental projects while the vast majority of our citizens are located elsewhere.

    Politics, like many other endeavors, is a numbers game.  If the numbers of citizens interested in science were to increase exponentially, then it would be an area of focus for politicians.

    Most of our citizens would rather watch the latest re-run of 'real life xxx of xxx' than learn anything worthwhile.  $0.02
    65 million claim to be scientifically curious - and we have a million of them here and lots of other publications do too. But, like I say, scientists themselves are a bloc but made it clear they are only for one side (in modern times) so no one needs to listen to them. 

    Because science is so removed from societal benefit the 64 million outside scientists are voting on economics or abortion or whatever, but not science issues.  So scientists can lament not being relevant to candidate but they seem to like not being part of the mainstream dialogue.
    Gerhard Adam
    Science may simply be too removed from the actual lives of the people it claims to serve to get enough mindshare from the public and therefore from political candidates.
    I suspect that part of the problem is that there don't seem to be any well-articulated objectives that actually involve society.  Certainly there are some niche interests that people would like to see progress on, but there hasn't been anything that really captures the imagination of society at large.  Even when there was an announcement about going to Mars, the general sentiment was ... "yeah, yeah ... we probably can't afford it, but we'll believe it when we see it".

    The space program was something that seemed to represent us, as a society.  Similarly other such projects have that kind of aura, but what is there today?  The biggest science issues are mostly negative; climate change, GMO foods, etc.  Then there's the various medical conditions/diseases that are always in the process of being promoted, but, again, they only relate to a specific subset of the population.

    So, what is there that would capture people's imaginations and make them wish to contribute funds?
    Mundus vult decipi
    I suspect that part of the problem is that there don't seem to be any well-articulated objectives that actually involve society
    Sure, that is what I mean about overturning Cold War bureaucracies. We spend $140 billion and no one can point to anything meaningful the research is doing in their lives.  We are reforming health care but the $30 billion the NIH gets does nothing at all to improve actual health care.  Ditto for DoE and other groups.  Nothing in the ancient mechanisms we have to do government research actually seems geared toward helping anyone - and scientists are resistant to anything that looks like applied science.
    Science is culture. That is an aspect of science that is often forgotten. The basic science has a value in its own regardless of how useful or not the results are.

    Science is also binding cultures together forming a peaceful brigde across nations. That is another aspect we do not talk so much about.

    Then you have the economic aspects of course, improving lives, solving societal problems etc.

    It is only the latter aspects that seem to be accepted used in the rethoric. If we want to get support from wider groups of the population, I'd work on including the cultural aspects in the rethoric. Not easy, but should be doable. ;-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Things may be different at your university, Hank, but at the universities that I know best a variety of incentives have been created in recent years to encourage academic/industry partnerships, to foster applied research, and to reward (finally) faculty who create "meaningful" and useful research. One barrier in the past has been that all patents for discovery/development automatically were owned by the university. That lowers incentives to smart researchers to do something really practical. With the precedent of Gatoraid and a few other megamillion dollar inventions, universities finally got the message that some forms of reward sharing could motivate their researchers to turn their work toward practical (and money-making) projects. At my university our physics department in collaboration with the IT industry is developing nanocomputing technology, for example. There are literally over 200 projects at my university alone that fall under this category, many funded in large part by federal grants, others funded exclusively through university/business partnerships.

    Second, as a cardiologist who also does research on the physiology of cardiovascular disease, I could bore you at length with a list of the actual improvements to actual health care that have been developed through NIH grants, but I'll simply invite you to have a myocardial infarct and reflect on how each stage of the process of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery has been improved by some NIH grant to someone, at some point. Check out the TIMI studies, funded by NIH since 1984, for a single, simple example of an extremely important piece of research that has improved actual health care.

    One barrier in the past has been that all patents for discovery/development automatically were owned by the university.
    That got changed 30 years ago. A system where taxpayers fund research and then a school owns it is not great - it also has not worked any better.  The private sector still does the overwhelming bulk of basic and applied research yet only spends half the money.  It means the government is not spending money smartly.

    When I was talking about health care, I was talking about health care - not improvements in transplants  If it were your $30 billion per year, would you feel like you were making a difference? Handing me a small list compared to the $1,000,000,000,000 spent is not going to be meaningful. The NIH is the largest life sciences body in the entire world, composed of smart people - why are we getting ridiculous health care reform that they had no part of, and never made a plan to fix, during the entire Great Society movement?  Because they are building cloisters around a disease - a Manhattan Project for each one - rather than thinking about what society needs.
    30 years ago? What university are you at? When I started at my current university in 1992 -- 20 years ago -- I had to sign the usual agreement to turn over all patents, etc to the university, and I had had a similar contract with the university that I had just left. At my university it has only been within the past 10 years that this has changed significantly, and even if we are a little behind, I doubt that anyone was doing this at any significant level 30 years ago. Again, what university are you teaching/researching at?

    As a clinician I can only suggest that health care, as you insist, is not the same as medicine, and NIH funds research in medicine. There are other federal agencies that fund work on health care, and they have been active in health care research and reform. I'm certainly not going to try to persuade you that every penny of $30 billion has been spend wisely by NIH. Compared to the trillion dollars we have spent to kill people in Iraq and Afghanistan, though, it might seem like money well spent.

    As for the issues surrounding a university or university faculty member benefiting financially from a federal grant, I can only point to what is done, not what should be done. The Feds make lots of different kinds of grants for business start-up, tax breaks to encourage investment in business, etc, so perhaps there are similar practices in other realms of life.

    The Bayh–Dole Act was passed in 1980, allowing universities to own patents - because we had the same problem then; despite the government taking over more and more funding, not much research was being done that the private sector could use for anything to help society.  So the government made it more agreeable for universities to monetize research.

    So maybe I misread your comment.  You instead want to be able to personally patent and own research you do with taxpayer money?  That would solve the problem?  Unlikely. Corporations are far more successful in monetizing basic research (and applied also) and don't pay researchers and then let them own the research they got paid to do.

    On the rest of your comment, I am not arguing against basic research - nor have I, in 2,000 articles here.  But you are certainly a rarity in contending our 1950s government science system is doing great.  If it were, then there wouldn't be any concerns from scientists about relevance, it is a $140 billion constituency. So something does not add up.

    I agree that the $140 billion is not the worst thing that could be done - but it's poor logic to say that is a reason not to fix it.  The DoE alone wasted $72 billion on grants and subsidies and loans for terrible alternative energy start-ups in the last 3 years and it is nowhere near the scandal it could be - and I am no fan of $6 billion Navy ships.  But 'we are no worse than other people' is not the way to make people care.
    "You instead want to be able to personally patent and own research you do with taxpayer money? That would solve the problem? Unlikely."

    It is solving the problem, and it certainly creates incentives to try. My wife the lawyer tells me that there is in fact a principle about the use of taxes, grant money, etc, that parallels my point about Federal grants and tax breaks that benefit private citizens and businesses -- it may sound outrageous to you to let me benefit from, say, a test I develop and patent through an NIH grant, but this is not unlike the ways in businesses benefit from grants and tax breaks. That's a legal and policy issue that I am not competent to judge. But I can assure you that at all of the universities I know of, it works. Check out the controversy at Stanford about Mark Holodniy’s research, and ask if he would have been nearly as motivated to pursue it if he had not been able to benefit from the outcomes.

    I don't contend that our antiquated system of funding basic research is doing great. I simply pointed out that many of the $30 billion you mentioned of NIH funding have in fact improved life and the prevention and treatment of disease in the U.S., something you seemed unable to accept. You then shifted to health care rather than basic medical science research, and now shift again to all basic research funded by the Feds. I quit.

    I didn't shift anything, you chose to read it one way and I clarified.  I asked, as one example, why the NIH does not take some of its $30 billion per year and fix health care - an obvious societal benefit that would show NIH relevance to people who clearly do not understand its relevance.  You decided that meant I said no NIH research, $1,000,000,000,000 worth, had any value and knocked down a straw man.

    While I am pleased your wife believes taxpayers should fund your inventions, the commerce clause of the Constitution does not actually agree. 
    This thesis is pedestrian nonsense. It's impossible to predict what basic research will yield in terms of specific benefits to society, but that it will yield benefits is certain.

    The problem regarding the incorporation of scientific concerns into politics lies not with scientists, but with an egregiously ignorant populace.

    True that we are an ignorant populace. It is however part of our responsibility as scientists to inform this ignorant population. If not scientists, then who?

    I smell an unfortunate arrogance in your comment. Maybe I am wrong, but I fear that persistent academic arrogance is part of the problem....
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Right, they didn't read the article. The smugness about 'I do basic research, it is someone else's job to make it worthwhile to society' is what I talked about in paragraph one - and it's the reason why despite being a $140 billion constituency, neither Obama nor Romney has to even to pretend to care about science.  They can adapt a 'take your money and shut up' mentality and then pick and choose their science positions based on their pre-existing beliefs.

    Meanwhile, scientists complain that no one cares.  The solution to the problem is right there, but no, they instead want to blather about what basic research is.
    Gerhard Adam
    ...but with an egregiously ignorant populace.
    Of which you are an equal member for anything other than your particular specialty, so dial it down. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank, this i another great topic you are writing about. This overlaps with my current research on drivers of innovation in biotechnology which are genomics, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology. 

    For the research on my new book Revolutions, and another book coming out this fall which I have a chapter on funding basic scientific research, I discovered some interesting facts. Going into these projects, my mindset was limited to the Thomas Kuhn model of basic science to applied research and government funded basic research, Bayh-Dole, and subsequent start-up companies.

    Although I am basically a libertarian, I am for government funded basic scientifc research. When I looked into how libertarians are supporting their arguments against government funding of basic science I discovered everyone is referencing Terence Kealey. This is because Kealey observed that another route for innovation occurs. He gathered stats on innovations and showed that increasing numbers of innovations are the result of improvements of existing innovations. For example: 

    Computer technology: Mark Zuckerberg's social networking applications and Steve Jobs tooch screen applications were not the result of basic science rather improvements of existing innovations.

    Nanotechnology: This field is about minaturization of existing technologies i.e. microfulidics to nanofluidics (surface area to mass ratio) and utilizing other physical properties. 

    Synthetic biology: Jay Keasling and Craig Venter have recently provided proofs of concept that this field is possible. The field is about recoding genomes to make proteins that nature has not or may take billions of years to do. 

    Genomics: In Revolutions, I argue that the primary reason for the genomic bubble is the complexity of biology. In the past, the dogma was genetic determinism. In this field, basic science is still very important especially for pathways and gene-environment interactions. 

     What does all this mean? Private industry has a greater role in Schumpeterian revolutions and there are multiple models for creating societal goods and boosting the economy.   

    Randall Mayes
    I have worked with science policy and funding for more than a decade in a national funding agency. Currently I am working on funding of Earth observation capacity building and would bluntly claim to be an expert in the field. :-)

    Although I agree with you that a lot of innovation comes from improvements of existing innovations I cannot but comment on the case of nanotechnology.

    Nanotechnology is based on fundamental scientific discoveries (fundamental physics) that would go under basic science. So I find that using that as an example is misleading in this context. In fact I would say it proves rather the opposite, that innovation can come out of basic science.

    Back in the days, IBM was perhaps the biggest funder of basic science - IBM being a private company.
    Both public and private funding of basic science are possible.

    We also see that a lot of innovations are 'killed' within bigger companies.

    Innovation and innovation strategies are not as straight forward as you indicate.

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Gerhard Adam
    Back in the days, IBM was perhaps the biggest funder of basic science...
    Perhaps I would add AT&T and the Bell labs?
    Mundus vult decipi
    The general point I'm making is that we probably should modernize the whole process keeping up with the current trends. Nanotechnology is an interesting case. We know there are unique properties in small particles; optical, electrical, thermal, surface area, etc. This is nanoscience. When researchers in nanotechnology perform research, it is hard to draw the line on basic and applied. But, I agree you can call it basic, but it sometimes applies to specific applications. One of the criteria for a patent is novelty. For nanotechnology, sometimes this is debatable for the product, but not the process patent.
    Randall Mayes
    Right, with nanotech we don't even know what to regulate.  Slapping on legacy EPA rules would be goofy.

    XeroxPARC (adding to Bell and IBM) was also important in modern technology and did it without government money.

    I have made the case many times and our current spending on research reaffirms it; we are always within the same range of GDP spending on research and when government money shrinks, the private sector increases.  But the private sector is happy to let the public do it otherwise because it is no risk for companies so if taxpayers will do it, companies will let them. That doesn't mean it has been good (at least for America) to have inefficient government picking science projects.  The only people who think it is good are scientists who pretend they are more independent than if they worked at companies.