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.
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