Science funding

avi

Hard at work in Puerto Rico

Barely back from a workshop organized in Puerto Rico by Ryan O’Donnell, Krzysztof Oleszkiewicz and Elchanan Mossel, and lavishly funded by the Simons foundation, I am greeted on my BART ride home (thanks wifirail) by a NYTimes piece Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science, featuring Jim Simons among many others. I had planned to blog about the excellent workshop, but this task has already been pre-empted by Li-Yang Tan’s comprehensive posts over at Ryan O’Donnel’s blog. So instead I will pick up on the NYTimes piece, which although lacking in verifiable facts and hard data raises some interesting issues. Being entirely funded by the Simons foundation through the Simons Institute in Berkeley (though I should say I don’t know how much of my salary comes directly from the foundation, and how much is contributed by UC Berkeley or other sources), whether I like it or not I am an integral part of the debate and find it worthwhile to give it some thought.

I fact, I do take to heart the question of where my funding comes from. Perhaps this is due to the somewhat unusual circumstances of the first funding I ever received, from the French government. I was fortunate to undertake my undergraduate studies at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, one of France’s (in)famous “Grandes Écoles”. One of the perks of ENS is that all students receive a modest monthly salary, the result of us being made “civil servants” at our entrance into the school. As a foreign national (I am Belgian) I found this “unreserved confidence” granted me by the French state (a job for life solely based on my results in some math exam!) somewhat humbling. Paid to study! Did they really think I would actually produce something useful, or was the French government just living through its characteristic largesse? (Obviously, the latter :-)) The funding did come with some conditions: in exchange for it I promised 10 years of work to the government (this includes working as a teacher, or researcher, for any of the French public organizations). I still owe them six years (the four years undergraduate count towards the total), but, shhhhht, so far they haven’t bothered to come after me…

Since those years I have been continuously supported by public funds, mostly from the French, Canadian, Singaporean and American governments, under what I can only qualify as wildly un-restrictive conditions. What justifies such unreserved trust? Behind the governments are taxpayers, some of whom voted for, others against, devoting a small percentage of their income to supporting researchers like myself. Although it may sound a little naïve I am proud of being awarded such confidence, and believe it is important to understand why and for what purpose it was given, and to do my best to deliver on this purpose. (Note here I am taking “purpose” in a strongly ideal sense, setting aside the cynical politics of science funding and instead focusing on what I perceive as the “right” motivations for funding science.) I owe a lot to public funding, and aside from the Simons foundation this semester I have not yet received much private support, although this may change in the future.

Back to the NYTimes piece. Are big private donors’ efforts to “leave their mark” by directing huge amounts of money into research on one particular area with large potential  impact — curing a specific disease, saving a species, flying civilians into space, etc — a threat to the “purity” and “independence” of scientific research? Are such efforts anything more than a spoiled child’s whim? As a scientist on which relatively small but nevertheless impressive amounts of one such donor’s money have recently been expended with virtually no direct oversight (witness the Puerto Rican resort for last week’s workshop, that I won’t dare link to) it would perhaps be disingenuous to be dismissive of the enterprise. But still… what do they know about fundamental research? What makes them qualified to influence, the future of science? The billionaires cited in the NYTimes article have made their fortunes in a variety of industries, software, oil, housing, pharmaceuticals, investment. Aren’t they doing more harm than good in throwing their checks around, paying others to achieve feats they will boast about at cocktail parties? Should we, scientists armed with the purest ideals, fall prey to the billionaire’s fancy?

I don’t think it’s that simple. The NYTimes piece presents some of the drawbacks of private funding, such as skewing research toward trendy areas or diminishing public support for federal science funding. These are real risks and identifying them is the first step in limiting their effect. Potential benefits, however, may far outweigh these risks. I am going to take a very idealistic (who said provocative?) perspective: private philanthropy at its best is the way science (and more generally the arts) should be funded. What is the purpose of science? It is a means to advance human knowledge. (There are others, such as philosophy or the arts, that are just as important or successful, but here I will focus just on science.) Given such a grand quest facing humanity’s finite resources, the important questions are: which directions, which challenges, should be privileged, and who should be elected to tackle them? Perhaps just as important, who should be empowered to decide on the answer to those questions: an all-powerful government (and its bureaucrats) or the scientists themselves?

Jim Simons

Neither. The decision-making process of any big government is unfathomable; there is no reason to think most bureaucrats are particularly qualified to make the funding decisions their appointment entails them to. Paradoxically their job might even make them less qualified than average at making those decisions (here I am thinking about high-level decisions on research directions or paradigms to pursue, rather than low-level decisions as to which particular grant applications should be funded). Indeed it is hard to imagine that even the best-intentioned employee of any big governmental agency would not eventually fall prey to a strong bias in favor of a very specific kind of proposal — say, one that emphasizes “impact”, or “public outreach”, or whatever is the agency’s current doctrine. Scientists suffer from a similar bias, though it is generated by an antipodal situation: they are too qualified to be the ones making decisions as to the future of science. Being right at the heart of the scientific process itself, and in spite of our grand claims to the opposite, our perspective is inevitably near-sighted. We are strongly biased in favor of directions and ideas that, although they may appear very bold, are rooted in the current techniques and scientific understanding and less prone to the kind of bold, wild projects that only the more “ignorant” could make.

Instead, I would like to argue that the best-placed to make paradigmatic decisions about fundamental research are strong-willed individuals, outsiders, who have a high but non-vital stake in its outcome. Note how this brings us close to, but not quite at, the claim that science funding should be directly decided by popular vote. I don’t place much trust in democratic voting; it is too subject to manipulation and places too important a stake in the hands of the many who simply do not care, or are easily led to care for the wrong reasons. Hence the insistence on “individuals” — decisions should be made by a few responsible persons rather than an amorphous group. I further strongly believe decisions should be taken by people who care about them; there is no reason to make those who don’t care a part of the process. I insist on “outsiders” simply because they are the only ones really free to make the kind of non-obvious choices necessary for scientific innovation. Finally, by “having a stake in the outcome” I mean that self-appointed decision-makers should be allowed only if they have a strong personal incentive in taking the matter seriously; no “strong-willed dilettantes” please!

So, private donors anyone? There are some clear risks, many of them exposed in the NYTimes article (and a Nature editorial linked to from the article), and I am certainly not advocating for a take-over of the whole decision process by private individuals. Private donors at first sound particularly undesirable as they may have a very specific kind of stake in the process, emphasizing “return on investment”, as well as a particularly directive approach more appropriate in a business-like environment. It is nevertheless interesting that the NYTimes piece makes it clear private donors often have very personal motivation for investing in a particular kind of science, either because they (or their close relatives) suffer from a certain rare disease, or they have a lifelong dream of achieving a particularly challenging technical feat (e.g. flying into space), or maybe had a life-changing personal encounter with this or that scientist, etc. These are all great reasons to promote a particular kind of science. In general I disagree with the image of scientific progress as an objective path towards a greater good. Science has always been rooted in a particular social and political context; there is no point in uprooting it, quite the opposite. Giving some amount of decision-making power back to individuals who care may be one of the best ways to ensure science accomplishes what it’s best at, helping human beings discover themselves and their world.

I think some amount of private decision-making (rather than just funding) may also help us, scientists, stay on our toes and remember why we are here, why we are given such trust; trust should never be unconditional. I don’t think it is doing us a favor to be awarded the comfort of an almost-guaranteed support in the form of “small grants” for almost whatever research proposal we may come up with. Instead I believe we should be ready to fight for, and defend, our ideas and research proposals. Comfort is never helpful. If this means having to pitch our ideas to individuals, then so be it. At least they actually take the issues at heart; much better than a double-blind interaction with some anonymous committee. As for scientific freedom and integrity, I trust us scientists to continue making it clear that we ultimately are the ones in charge; as long as we keep our reputation up — admittedly a perpetual fight — I don’t see the balance tipping in the wrong direction.

Alright, so perhaps this was a little provocative :-) What do you think?

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8 Responses to Science funding

  1. Henry Yuen says:

    Interesting stance. I would like to offer an argument in the opposite direction, that privately funded science is subject to the finiteness of the individual behind the funding. It is very nice when the rich billionaire decides to shower his or her riches on a group of scientists, but what happens when the billionaire dies? Should we be okay with a cessation in research, because the funding has dried up? Would the scientists have to go looking around for another billionaire who shares the same sympathies as the previous backer? Basically, privately funded science does not have the same stability guarantees as publicly funded science.

    I’ll grant that not all science projects need to last forever. But certain massive undertakings, such as the LHC/Higgs-Boson project, or the international space station, certainly wouldn’t exist or be nearly as grand in scope if many different countries didn’t pool their resources together. Try to imagine a group of physicists going around, trying to raise from private donors the billions of dollars needed to fund the 20+ years of work needed to construct the LHC (which itself was based on many more decades of research before that). While there are a few people like Jim Simons who seem happy to support such theoretical, fundamental research, I’d say an LHC-style project would be impossible in a world where the decision makers were a few “strong-willed individuals”.

    Also, I thought the NYTimes article pointed out a very interesting trend in privately funded disease research: the research becomes skewed towards understanding diseases that afflict the demographic of people who are rich billionaires (namely, white males), while diseases that afflict minorities are neglected. While you say that science shouldn’t be uprooted from its social and political context, I don’t think science should only serve the rich and powerful (who, almost by definition, are in charge of the current social and political context). Government, I think, is necessary to help maintain *some* fair distribution of resources to everybody. I think you’re right, that scientific progress in itself is not an objective path towards the greater good, but government decision-making is the main mechanism to steer science towards benefiting all citizens.

  2. Thomas says:

    I agree with your point about the LHC. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest replacing all public funds by private ones; rather I meant to point out that private funding could bring some benefits to science, one of them being to re-dynamize a little the process through which decisions as to which research should be funded are being made. I think the process through which government funding is attributed often does not encourage risk-taking or self-questioning attitudes. In that respect the LHC is a good example: it is very much a “consensus” project, and as such amenable to public funds. It is a respectable project and I’m happy for it to be funded. Other projects are not being funded; in fact they are barely being spelled out, and this is where I saw a space for funding from private donors. (When a billionaire dies, as pointed out in the NYtimes piece he donates his money to science and stops spending it on golf and lobster — even better :-))

    I also agree with the point about billionaires being unrepresentative of the global population. I should’ve been more clear about this; I didn’t really mean to suggest funding by billionaires was good in itself; rather I used them as a place-holder for my attempted definition of “strong-willed individuals” — be they billionaires or not! It is unfortunate that the billionaires are the ones who have the billions, and if there was a better mechanism to select decision-makers from the population I’d certainly be up for it…

  3. Henry Yuen says:

    I have to share this pretty cool “Kickstarter-for-science” site I just found: https://experiment.com/home.

  4. French Person says:

    “(a job for life solely based on my results in some math exam!) ”

    I don’t know if you meant this as a joke or not … do you mean to say that you can be a student at ENS permanently if you wish? Once you graduate, what is your “job for life”?

    While I appreciate your humor, since everyone seems to think that all jobs in France are permanent, such jokes are somewhat insensitive to people who may be in France and may not be so fortunate as to have a permanent job.

    • Thomas says:

      What I meant is that, as far as I understand, admittance at ENS game me the status of civil servant, or “fonctionnaire”, which means I was all but guaranteed an administrative or academic job even after my studies. The job might not necessarily be my dream job, but it would provide a salary.
      I didn’t mean to appear insensitive t the difficult work prospects that many are facing: indeed, as I wrote, I did find it humbling to be offered such prospects at such a young and inexperienced age; I am quite aware that this was both undeserved and privileged.

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