Memorial Day and science policy…Part 3.

As noted in yesterday’s post, the social contract/policy for science is coming under scrutiny. The latest example? A report on the National Science Foundation put out by the office of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).  Dan Sarewitz comments in a post on Roger Pielke Jr.’s Blog.

You and I can learn a great deal from both the report and the commentary. Here are some inferences we might reasonably draw.

Science has gotten big. When people speak of “big science,” usually they mean that science is no longer an individual activity, but instead requires the concerted efforts of groups and institutions, sustained over a period of years. This is certainly true enough, but it has been true ever since World War II. That’s not what I mean by “big” here. To me, “big” science means big relative to its host organism, the larger society. The amounts of money involved – $7B per year for NSF (Coburn estimates government research funding to be about five times that amount, or $35B/year) – might seem small compared with either the $3T annual federal budget or the $14T of national debt. However, the sums have grown to the point where members of Congress hunting for ways to reduce the budget deficit and shrink the national debt might reasonably be tempted to look there for a few of the needed cuts.

Order also matters. Spending millions of dollars in any one area or discipline of science? In practice, in the United States, funding at this level doesn’t preclude investments in other sciences in an economy as large as ours. But spending billions does. At that level, it’s important to choose winners! Spend those billions at just the right time, and we can jump-start a nascent biotechnology sector, or capture the lead in computer chip manufacture. But spend billions on an area of science that’s not ready to yield its secrets, or poised for a burst of innovation and commercialization, while others are investing more shrewdly, and we fall just a little bit behind in the global chase for economic growth, for relevancy.

[A side note: the odds are against us here! There’s little sign we’re any more adept at such science investment strategies at the portfolio level than we are at national industrial policy – picking which area – whether heavy industry, or transportation, or electronics, or health care – to subsidize and support. Economists are skeptical of our ability to do this, preferring free-market approaches to growth. They claim that governments and companies are very poor at picking winners.]

Order matters for another reason. It appears that those who get the funding first do indeed carry out nifty research, and add to our knowledge and understanding, but they also do something else. They set aside some of the resources they’ve been given – both time and dollars – and they use these not to do research but to perpetuate their standing at the head of the line for more funding in the future. They market. They (blush!) advocate.

After World War II, the preponderance of funding in the early years went to the physical sciences. High-energy physics. Electronics. The priority stayed that way for decades. Then the biological and life sciences got a boost. Since then, they’ve been able to sustain their high standing.

Left in the wings? The Earth sciences, and the social sciences. Will their turn come? Arguably, it should…precisely because order matters in another way.

The Earth sciences – our basis for dealing intelligently and effectively with Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat, is the one of the physical sciences that has a ticking clock. Isolate the Higgs boson? Prove its existence? Consequential, probably. But it’s not obvious that scrap of science is a matter of the greatest urgency for the human race. A delay of a few years? Might not be of real concern. By contrast – maintain present and future supplies of water, food, and energy? That matters directly to most of us.

Go to the moon? Seemed important at the time but for the moment that’s something we used to do. Go to Mars? That looks to be a whole lot harder – and then you’re on Mars. Where’s the joy for most of us? But maintain the value of ecosystem services? Protect habitat, fish stocks, air quality? Or provide better tornado or tsunami warnings? Those things look like they’d help all of us now.

[So…standing back a bit, we might decide to get our home planet in good shape first, and grow our world economy and technology, and then, in another decade or so, discover that human presence in space would be far more doable. Plenty of ways we can hone our space capabilities while sticking close to home, at least for now.]

The same goes for the social sciences. Coburn and Sarewitz take pains to say they agree on the following, as Dan expressed in Nature News: the civilian research agencies were designed as temples of scientific excellence and technological prowess, but they…are ill-structured to create and sustain essential links between knowledge generation, technological innovation, and desired social outcomes.[1] Put another way, the gap appears to be widening between the advance of science, and society’s ability to benefit. Why is that? We know only in the vaguest of terms. Better understanding of the role of policy and social behavior shaping these outcomes is urgently needed. We should be as disciplined in our approach to harnessing science and technology as we are to their development in the first place. Why does innovation occur in some countries, and not so much in others? In certain market sectors over the rest? Why do nations and peoples respond to the ozone-hole threat, but wrangle incessantly about climate change? Why was H1N1 vaccine readily adopted, while HPV is meeting resistance? Why do we reduce aviation risk over time, but when it comes to natural hazards “rebuild as before” instead of learning from experience? Why do some people evacuate in the face of an oncoming hurricane, while others defy those orders? Social science holds the answer to such questions.

The payoff comes from transformative science, but very little is. It’s very much like mining gold ore. In that case, a tenth of an ounce of gold per ton of ore makes for commercial viability. It’s this feature that makes it easy for Senators, or others, for that matter, to poke fun at research based on a quick study of titles. This same feature tempts scientists to pursue low-risk, low-payoff science. Low payoff is better for an individual’s career than no payoff. Most avenues of science prove to be blind alleys. Takes a lot of effort to tell the difference. Exploring any one of them is likely to be a waste of time. Failure to check out at least some is a prescription for stagnation.

Big decisions about science will not be left to the scientists alone. The stakes are also sufficiently high that members of Congress, even when seeking cuts, find themselves conflicted. They want what funding survives to be targeted at their states and districts. Time might have been when where those science dollars landed didn’t seem to make a difference, but that time is past. So the allocation of dollars across the big R&D portfolios will be determined out of a national conversation involving scientists, economists, politicians at federal, state, and local levels – just about everybody.

Just as “war is too important to be left to the generals.”

And speaking of war, and coming back to our Memorial Day theme…there’s a war on. Not just literally, but also figuratively. When times are good, when the economy is rolling, when there’s little competition on the horizon to American ideas or values, or goods and services, then distractions, waste, pursuing basic science wherever curiosity might take us doesn’t seem to matter so much. But America is struggling to hold its place in the world even as all nations are struggling to cope with the Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat. And so, each of us, at whatever task, is feeling a calling “to do our bit” for the country and the world.

Scientists are not exempt from this call. And scientists, to be effective, must exhibit not just intellect, but courage, bravery, heroism. Helping policymakers identify and invest in the most promising science, even when it’s not our own, for example. Coming down from that iconic ivory tower and getting involved in the application of our science and technology to benefit our fellow human beings.  Accepting the career risk and choosing to hammer away at science offering a greater payoff.  Not flinching from the rough and tumble of the public policy arena, but diving in. And once there, not just flailing about, and complaining about how we’re being misunderstood and mistreated, but making our case.

Where will that courage come from? The source will be different for each of us, just like those soldiers who gave their lives. For some, it will come from the heat of a given moment, seemingly out of nowhere. Some will take on this role from a sense of duty or love or responsibility. And some scientists – yes, even scientists – will, like some of those soldiers, seek strength from a higher power.


[1] Readers should note that improving societal outcomes is not a catchphrase but a lifelong commitment for Dan Sarewitz. It’s in the name of his organization, the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.

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