The pitfall of big science.

Neuroscience was in the news recently because the President of the United States is giving his name to a somewhat diffuse initiative called BRAIN. The way this is being sold is that this is a ‘challenge’ initiative, like Kennedy’s Moon shot or the genome project. A challenge initiative that will enable us to understand the functioning of the human brain in order to cure brain disorders.

I think this is the beginning of the end of what I liked about American science. What I liked about American science was that funding was spread across many scientists doing many diverse things. And I think that is the only way to do fund basic science.

By its nature each individual bit of basic science is a high risk endeavor.  Experiments, when properly thought out to maximize new knowledge, are most likely to fail, leading us into many blind alleys. The only criterion, in my mind, for a good experiment, is one which tells us clearly when we’ve gone into one of those blind alleys.

The fact is, that no one can predict the blind alleys and the breakthroughs. Often scientific discoveries are not only accidental, but they are unrecognized at the time of discovery. Only later, after other discoveries are made or the socio-economic landscape has changed do these discoveries suddenly appear significant and revolutionary.

Funding science is like picking stocks. You don’t know which one is going to work out. In the stock market, you can do some things that are, at the very least immoral, and perhaps illegal, to game the system and ensure a flow of money from the less connected, small investor, to the better connected bigger investor. In science, you can not game the system. No one has a special insight into where the next big break through is coming from. You can’t time this market.

I used to think, therefore, that the NIH and NSF, by giving out a lot of grants to people doing many different things, was playing the game right. Diversify and fund as many different ideas as possible. A small fraction will bear fruit, but we will simultaneously maintain a decent mass of well trained scientists and reap the benefits of the occasional breakthrough.

But two factors seem to have broken the back of that system. The financial crunch has bled out funding from the NIH for over a decade and simultaneously the funding agencies have gone into a strange turtle mode: they only want to fund science that is ‘guaranteed’ to get ‘results’. There are no guarantees in science. Often we do not know what a ‘result’ is.

As part of this effort to only fund great science, the funding agencies are looking to only fund the ‘super star’ scientists. These are scientists, who, through some objective criterion, are ‘better’ than the rest. These seemingly objective criteria (publication impact, publication volume) are increasingly boiling down to political influence. How many friends and supporters they have on journal review staff,  grant panels, in the funding agencies and now, in the very machinery of government itself.

President Obama’s announcement of the BRAIN initiative, to me, is like a marker in the road to the increasing politicization of scientific funding. Usually when people think about politics in science they think about political appointees stopping scientific progress to benefit religious constituents or industrial powerhouses that pull their strings.

I think of politicization as the judging of scientific endeavor not from the strict lens of scientific correctness, but from the more subjective lens of ‘sexiness’ or ‘impact’. It is my firm opinion that this is a grave mistake. As scientists we can only judge scientific correctness. We may think we can judge impact, but the truth is that these are merely very biased opinions. We may sometimes be correct, but in most situations we do not have the foresight to see what combination of future socio-economic factors and other discoveries will make which contemporary scientific finding useful or useless.

With the BRAIN initiative we are now formalizing a centrally controlled system of doing science where a small number of politically skillful people will control an ever decreasing  purse of money to fund an ever decreasing and less and less diverse thinking set of scientists. This is a disaster.

I would rather propose that the number of grants should be kept constant (or increasing) and the size of each grant should go down. PIs should also be restricted in how many graduate students and post docs they can hire. Scientists are creative people, they will find ways to stretch that research budget. Perhaps PIs could take a little less by way of salaries, labs using common equipment could find ways to pool resources. But the science will go on. And will be diverse and we will let the future sort out what was a good result and what was a false positive or a mere curiosity of no practical value.

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