Is curiosity-driven science dying?

Or, perhaps, is it dead?

After World War II, America embarked on an experiment: put taxpayers dollars out there for scientists to explore, well, whatever seemed interesting. The recipients of these grants had to convince their colleagues that what they wanted to do was worthwhile, but otherwise there wasn’t an agenda. The idea was that such basic research was unpredictable but that some of it would produce fertile ground for more applied applications.

Over time this blanket approval for curiosity-driven science has been nibbled away. On the one hand are large projects.  In earth science we can point to EarthScope and SCEC as large projects that absorb money for particular purposes.  Without commenting one way or the other on the wisdom of either, it is clear that only science relevant to those programs need apply.  SCEC, for instance, gets about $15M for 5 years for its activities just from NSF. These activities necessarily are directing money that otherwise might be used for research into other topics.

On the other hand are community-driven “frontier” type documents specifying where “grand challenges” are. These documents are often used to decide which proposals will get funded. This tends to work against research into less heavily promoted corners of earth science. Do such agendas help science that will have the most impact? (The old saw about a camel being a horse created by a committee comes to mind here…).

Arguably the inclusion of engineering in NSF has challenged the whole notion of curiosity-driven science; engineering is applying science to specific problems.  Or is there funded research in, for instance, how to build a Dyson sphere? [Maybe.  GG is kind of ignorant here but suspects that by including a field known for specific applied outcomes that it changes how you might view NSF as a whole].

Researchers wanting to pursue their own ideas will frequently find that they need to justify their research in terms of these large programs and research agendas.  Some will follow the lead and do something that these programs say are things we want to do.  Is that curiosity driven research if you, the applicant, are not the one who is curious?

Yet another piece of pie is now allocated for education and outreach. Arguably this has gotten out of hand in some ways (see Zimmer’s article in Cell for a surprising take on this; maybe this includes this blog, too, though GG has never claimed activities here as being part of any funded research). Again, it isn’t the merits of the E&O but the fact that time and money are not being used for research that previously were so used.

And finally we have the specter of politicians overseeing the kinds of research that are to be funded, both by asking for internal review documents and by determining which directorates at NSF should be getting money (though there was some good news today on that front). Once funding for specific directorates becomes a political football, scientists could get whipsawed between priorities as different political parties take control of the process. And your curiosity might be damped a bit if you thought it would lead you to defending yourself in Congress. Add in the likelihood that this would produce decreases in budgets for NSF over the long term if this became the norm and this seems like bad news for curiosity-driven research.

The current model where all research has to produce peer-reviewed papers (and in some circles, at a specified rate of publication even) demands that risks be avoided.  The current model of university research demands that money be brought in continuously to support the institution. The more papers and more press releases the better say universities and funding agencies (who can easily muster pages of statistics to show such things). Say you ignore the subtle messages being sent and buy into “high risk, high reward science” that NSF says it wants.  And say your high risk project fails. What exactly do you write in that big space where you need to report on “Results of Prior Support” in your next grant proposal? Nobody told you that the high risk also included a high risk to your odds of ever getting funded again…which of course could carry other repercussions.

Well, maybe this is science nostalgia with no real basis (right up there with imagining the 50s were great during the Cold War or the 70s with stagflation and an oil crisis). But it feels like the kinds of science Vannever Bush was arguing should be supported back when NSF was formed are not the kinds of science we are looking to fund now. And that is too bad, because the long-term biggest bang for the buck probably will come from that kind of science.


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