Priorities

If you want to see the justification for the attack on earth science from the point of view of one of the main authors, you can find it in Lamar Smith’s op-ed in The Hill. He argues that priorities must be set and “taxpayers’ dollars should be focused on national priorities. The progress of science in the United States as well as our future economic and national security depends on making smart investments in science and prioritizing research.” All other research ought to be funded by charities.

We can hope that one day Smith goes back and rereads Vannever Bush’s document describing the need and justification for the National Science Foundation. Here’s the rub: who knows best how to set the priorities?

Remember, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is not the R&D arm of industry, nor of the Defense Department. While there is a good argument for removing Engineering from NSF, within science, where will money yield the most good?  Here is what Bush recognized: you have no idea.  The researchers themselves are pursuing concepts they themselves might have no idea how to apply. And yet out of all this oft times comes advances that far more than pay back that initial investment.  The problem is recognizing the point where the marginal longterm return does not exceed the longterm value of the current investment. So, is it wise for Congress to plop itself down in the middle of this and say, we think you should study this and this and this and not that other stuff?

Realistically the answer is probably not.  Certainly it is within Congress’s role to determine how much of the federal budget should be spent on science, and it makes some sense to monitor that the money is being spent on science [though all too often the accounting measures imposed cost far more than any losses from theft or misuse]. While there is always a risk that scientists will avoid funding research that might challenge established concepts, it is even more likely that politicians will seek to fund research done in their district and desired by their corporate sponsors; judging from statements made by elect red representatives over the years, they are in fact far more likely to dismiss potentially game changing research as simply muddying what we know.

How about those philanthropists seeking to fill the holes?  Well, they also have agendas: they will fund stuff they are interested in, like SETI and a cure for a specific disease or to answer some question they are interested in or to support some political position they want supported.  World class research will rarely emerge from such chaos and overly directed research. (For instance, consider the discussion here).

Now to be fair, Smith is starting from an MIT report that he feels simply advocates for more spending across the board. But much of the MIT report itself is misguided and sends the wrong message (as is clear from the Smith op-ed): it says “hey, to solve this problem, invest here.” Look, in applied research, that is fine, and an awful lot of what is in that report is applied research, not basic research.

[We won’t spend much time on the “Funding is cut for lower priority areas, including social and behavioral science, redundant climate research, and subsidies for private companies. “–he never defends exactly what is redundant; coming a couple years after saying we don’t know enough to act, this is obviously justifying his desired action].

If you said in 1910, hey, the way to win a war 35 years from now is to conduct experiments on the structure of the atom, who would have agreed? The priorities would probably have been on improving chemical explosives or these new-fangled tank things or something like that.  Or saying that protecting airline passengers from terrorists might be achieved by understanding the fogging of film by certain rocks in a lab drawer. Yet it was research into things like radioactivity and theoretical physics that led to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb and exploration of high-energy radiation that led to X-ray systems to check baggage without rummaging through it.  Lists of the basic research roots of some major advances like Google and GPS can be found online from the ITIF thinktank and IUPAB, to name two.

For Congress to say, today, that they know where serendipity will strike is beyond ridiculous.  It is often the odd weed in the field and not the seeds you planted that will provide the most significant discoveries. Scientists on panels are more likely (but perhaps not likely enough) to water some of those weeds and tolerate the ones that will need to be pulled and disposed of.  Politicians? They are apt to plant a monoculture and enforce it with pesticides.

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  1. Why Tenure?: Geoscience Edition | The Grumpy Geophysicist - June 6, 2015

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