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Scientists and the economic crisis yet again

December 3, 2011 4 comments

David Bruggeman’s sharp comment is worth reprinting in full:

From where I sit, both Stilgoe and Macilwain are attempting to remind the community of two things.

First, the large opportunity they are missing to be opportunistic. If the changing political environment changes the emphasis in what funders are looking for, researchers (at least those who eventually get tenure) tend to exploit those trends. If you go back a decade, researchers adapted to the increased emphasis on security in part by trying to fit their work into the ‘new normal.’ That’s not happening now.

Science and technology advocates are appealing to the soft bigotry of low expectations: they always complain about funding, so that’s all science and technology policy is about. I work in science and technology policy, and funding is at most 5 percent of what I work on.

Secondly, science and technology advocates, frankly, are rubbish at doing anything to improve themselves or the research enterprise. There’s no questioning of the status quo, no conception of doing things differently than before. We could use a little creative destruction and the economic crises provide the possibility. Does the post World War II method of organizing, funding and performing federal research still make sense?

Of course, since the folks in the U.S. failed to properly manage a damn thing after the NIH doubling effort ended and the system couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to a decline in the rate of growth for funding, I expect most will ignore the new reality of flat or declining funding (not rate of growth, absolute dollars) and pine for the good old days of excess building capacity and way-too-long periods of time as postdocs.

But hey, if we’re just an interest group, no problem. We’ll just do like everyone else and continue to think our ‘successes’ of the last decade validate our tactics and strategy. My mind still boggles at the persistent lack of imagination amongst those that were supposedly encouraged to conduct original research as part of their ‘training’ in science and technology.

There’s a lot to unpack here: scientists’ response to a changing environment, the content of S&T policy, improving the research enterprise, and the early 2000′s doubling of NIH funding. I’ll attack these points in turn.

I first question whether funders will change their priorities, and if they do, in what direction. Republicans have historically supported basic research at the expense of applied, a tradition the leading Republican candidate maintains. Obama consistently advocates for doubling basic research, Bush II also called for more science funding, and Clinton started the NIH-funding binge to begin with. It’s not at all clear that a “new normal” is upon us anytime soon.

Along those lines, I’m not sure the DOD-analogy applies. I’d love to see a more fine-grained analysis, but I get the impression scientists reoriented their priorities after funding became available. There was no period of introspection that led to scientists’ wanting to protect the nation. Rather, they saw some money and went after it. That’s why I suggested new funding streams would change scientists’ behavior more than anything else.

And since funding is the life-blood of scientific research, we should expect when S&T advocates to focus efforts there. They advocate on behalf of the research community, not science writ-large. People like Bruggeman and (to toot my own horn) me fill other necessary roles. We recognize science is more than research and policy is more than funding. Researchers have other concerns.

As for creative destruction, I suspect it rarely occurs with the consent of those being destroyed. I welcome David’s input on this as his knowledge of economic history is much greater than mine. But as I understand Schumpeter, external pressure and competition induces creative destruction. If the economic crisis won’t produce such pressure (and again, Presidential statements don’t support that view), then that pressure has to come from somewhere else.

This is getting long already, so I’ll close with a couple points. First, I largely agree with Bruggeman’s goals. I would love scientists to reexamine their priorities and question the status quo. But it’s not easy for them to do so. The neuroscientists I know are well aware of the funding dynamic Bruggeman describes. But they also know getting tenure means publishing papers and receiving grants. Successful grants tend to focus on narrow research questions and call for grad students and post-docs, perpetuating the the PhD bubble. Even if they wanted to change, they couldn’t do so without sacrificing their careers.

And that’s why I harp on interests so much. I’m not sure the policy community appreciates that scientists are simply acting in their interests. Us in S&T policy have to deal with this reality and propose practical solutions.

Categories: Academia, Special Interest
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