Sunday, September 1, 2013

Science on the Free Market?

My mum's friend sent me this article discussing how science is moving away from fundamental research, and towards translational work, and asked for my opinion.

The article is titled "Should Science be for Sale?", which immediately made me think of some kind of sinister plan to buy people out of presenting the whole truth.  

Although faking science is not limited to the former Soviet Republics, the author points out that it has been getting worse there. I agree this is bad; when people build science on bad science, it may take years for its consequences on scientific theory to emerge. However, the author tries to blame this "evil" on the fact that people increasingly see science as a means to an end, rather than for its own holy sake. Yes money can lead to greed and cheating the system, but it can also lead to healthy competition - a bit of a free market with the tax-paying public as customers - for doing the research that matters, and so the author's implied sentiment that applied research is filthy compared to basic science is a bit simple-minded and snooty to me.* 

But by no means do I think science is a holy palace either. Science has its traditions about what should and should not be published which don't always coincide with simple rules of following the scientific method. It is true that scientific knowledge is financially-driven - science journals are after all really just glorified tabloids looking for the biggest and best (fact-checked) stories to boost readership - and researchers need to do the work that will get them money from the governmental funding agencies that decide the country's research agenda. 

While applied research may be more explicitly designed to facilitate progress towards these goals, and to fit in with where the government is funding, by no means does this mean that basic research is excluded from these funding calls. You just have to spin it a bit harder to make it sexy, and ultimately I think this is better for the researchers. Any taxpayer is entitled to know what areas of science his or her money is going to, and to ask scientists how they are attempting to make the world a better place. Taxpayers don't always have to understand exactly how this research will get to that end-point, but by forcing research proposals to consider broader impacts, it better prepares scientists to legitimize their work to their funders, and to think about how their work will ultimately contribute to society. It gives people a goal, and making coherent progress is difficult without one (not to mention checking the boxes on annual reports!)

I think that if this country is going to continue to succeed in science, ALL scientists will have to promote their research and give it credibility in the eyes of the public, who, whether as taxpayers or as private donors, determine its future. We absolutely need more basic research, but if you are up on your high, unapplied horse and refuse to even distantly relate it to a topic of public or private interest, don't whine when funding dries up.

* This attitude towards applied sciences apparently is even worse in maths than in (other?) science. Last year I lived with a mathematician who was complaining about lack of funding for his field, so I asked him what the end goal of his work was - how could it eventually be applied to physics or economics to improve knowledge of the world. He said that application was a no-go word, and even thinking about it would lead to ostracization, so he couldn't tell me what he did or where his research was headed. It was like he was bitter that he had to reduce or filthy himself with applied work, even though the taxpayer had funded grad school for him.