Tag Archives: Science Funding

Science for Science’s Sake

A couple weeks ago, Sheila Patek was on the PBS News Hour and discussed eloquently how science and scientists work. She talked about how scientists are driven by curiosity to venture into the unknown, which may or may not lead to applications for humans. When you go somewhere no one has gone before, who knows if it’s going to be of any use? However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Here’s the video:

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Toyota, General Motors and the Quest for Quality

A couple weeks ago, This American Life, the podcast from which this blog derives its name, aired an episode entitled NUMMI. The episode covered several aspects that led to General Motors’ decline and Toyota’s increased market share among auto-makers in the United States in the 1990s.

One of the cited reasons for GM’s downfall stood out in my mind: the emphasis of quantity over quality. While Toyota stressed manufacturing reliable cars, GM was trying to maximize the number of cars it was able to produce behind the idea that repairs could be taken care of at a later time. Ultimately, the consumers lost confidence in GM’s product, GM went bankrupt, and it was bailed out by the US government with $50 billion of taxpayer money.

Why did Toyota stress reliability and GM highlight volume? From the point of view of the podcast, it had to do with the management structure as well as labor relations between the auto-workers and upper management. Without getting mired in details, Toyota had a far superior management structure where workers felt like they could contribute ideas and wanted the product to succeed.

I bring these issues up because in today’s academic climate in the sciences, there are some apt parallels. Because of the structure put in place either by government funding agencies or by the administrators at universities, there is an ever-increasing pressure to publish papers. Of course, the added emphasis on volume does not necessarily have to lead to a decline in quality, but there does appear to be an inherent tension between quantity and quality. It is quite easy to intuit that in a world where publication quality reigns supreme, there would be far fewer publications in total.

There is a lot of fantastic science done in the present time, but because of the pressure to publish papers I am afraid that there is not enough time for a thorough education and proper scientific development. It is interesting to note that Richard Feynman published a moderate 85 refereed publications in his lifetime, but they were often of the highest quality. Truly remarkable breakthroughs take years of deep thought, synthesis and attention to detail, i.e. time.

It would be great to see a more concerted effort to manufacture more reliable cars, not just making many cars with the hope that a few will be manufactured well.

Metrics Subject to Manipulation

Previously, I have cited the famous HBO series The Wire focusing in particular on the careerism vs. good science dichotomy. A closely related element that I failed to mention last time was the use of a single number or metric to measure productivity or effectiveness of organizations or individuals. This problem is addressed in The Wire is many different contexts. In our field, the manifestation is in the form of the h-index, which is used for faculty hires, for department and university rankings and for assessing research grants. (A researcher has h-index h if he or she has published papers with at least h citations.)

It is well-known that measurements of this kind can lead to a corruption of sorts because people are susceptible to trying to maximize their indices. There are even ridiculous websites claiming they can help you increase your h-index. In The Wire, this is called “juking the stats”. Statistics can be “juked” is various ways. Researchers can request others to cite their work (and cite their own work heavily), undeserving co-authors may be included for minimal work, and pressure to publish can lead to sensationalized work that is “half-baked”, etc.

The detrimental side of these indices and metrics is captured well in a couple clips from The Wire linked below. The first is in the context of the police department in attempt to reduce crime rates and the second is in reference to test scores at the grade-school level.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xH_6_8NOfwI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ogxZxu6cjM

It seems to me that there is some awareness and push-back in the physics community with respect to these metrics, which I find refreshing. I also think most of us recognize that blanket numbers like these cannot measure the subtleties associated with one’s true scientific output. Nonetheless, as long as the “higher-ups” continue to use them, the longer they will have a strong grappling-hook on some.

Social and Moral Responsibility of a Scientist

To what extent do scientists and engineers have a responsibility to try to solve the world’s great problems at large? Let me state right at the beginning of the post that I do not have an answer to this question, but I just wanted to raise a few points to start a discussion.

During the WWII period in the United States, many of the nation’s top physicists were corralled to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work at the Manhattan Project in effort to build a nuclear weapon. Moreover, the scientists at Bell Labs, a private laboratory under the auspices of AT&T, aided in the war effort most notably by working on radar technology and also by enabling secure communication among the Allies by developing SIGSALY.

During the Cold War Space Race, US scientists and engineers were again called upon, this time at NASA, to make sure the the United States was able to land an astronaut on the moon before the Soviets. With a lot of money and effort, scientists were able to deliver on the promise by John F. Kennedy to do so before 1970.

While these were under different circumstances, i.e. wartime, scientists responded when called upon by the government. There are other numerous examples outside the US, where scientists have worked in close quarters with the government, such as in the former USSR.

Today, however, the issues are a little different. The looming potential problems caused by greenhouse gas emissions due to rapid industrial development are a “peacetime” concern. This time, also, it isn’t a single government that has to corral the scientists, it is all of them.

The question now is, even in the absence of large-scale government action on these matters, to what extent are physicists and other scientists responsible for addressing these problems? Many engineering departments and national labs are currently engaged in developing battery technologies, more efficient solar cells, transparent solar cells, etc. (funded by the government). Many physicists continue to work on superconductivity with the hope that it may solve the energy transportation and storage problem. But the urgency is clearly not the same as in wartime.

It is largely public money that educates most of us, funds most of our research, yet much of the research we undertake does not have foreseeable implications for the grander problems at large. The fact that scientists and engineers are some of the best placed in terms of education and technical ability to solve these problems does put some burden on us.

Left alone, I would love to spend all my time doing basic science without looking up to see that the world is facing some pretty grand challenges. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury, and I do think it would be fair for governments to require us to address these problems by requesting PIs to spend a certain percentage of their research time devoted to these kinds of pressing problems. Perhaps a wartime mindset is needed to solve this problem.

Lastly, I would like to stress that in the two cases mentioned above, WWII and the Space Race, the US economy came out faring better after the heavy investment in science and technology. Industrialized nations can do the same in the present time by investing more in the world’s greener energy technologies, which undoubtedly must be the future of humans.

Comments welcome.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on NASA Funding

I reiterate a previous post about scientific public intellectuals. There are few scientists as impassioned, articulate and persuasive as Neil deGrasse Tyson as evidenced by this short clip:

Let me also quote his inspirational testimony in front of the United States Senate:

The 2008 bank bailout of $750 billion was greater than all the money NASA had received in its half-century history.

Declining Basic Science in the US

Having been a student in the US for some time now, one constantly gets the feeling that US basic science research is in decline. This is expressed somewhat satirically (you can read the passage here) by PW Anderson in More and Different: Notes from a Thoughtful Curmudgeon.

More seriously, this is expressed concretely in the recently released MIT report called (pdf link!)  The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a US Innovation Deficit. Since the report is long, it is summarized in a Physics Today article that is worth reading.

The Physics Today article provides a link to the plot below. It is a plot of government spending on research and development as a percentage of the federal budget in the years between 1961-2015. It shows a seeming decline in R&D spending:

The Physics Today article did not, however, link the plot below, which provides more context. It is a plot of total nondefense R&D spending per year adjusted for inflation.

More interesting plots here.

There are a few standout features in this plot. One is the dramatic increase in funding for health related sciences. Another is the staggering amount of money spent in the 1960s on space-related sciences during the height of the Cold War Space Race. The most important point of this plot, though, is that when adjusted for inflation, the amount of money spent on science by the federal government has increased over time.

So why does the MIT report lament the lack of money for basic research?

This is my perspective: I agree with the overall premise of the report that basic science innovations are slowing in the US compared with other countries. I don’t agree, however, that it is because of a lack of federal funding. What is missing from both plots above, is the amount of basic science research undertaken in the private sector.

The disappearance of funding (which was not federal) for industrial research facilities such as Bell Labs, IBM Research, Xerox PARC, and General Electric Research Laboratories has been extremely detrimental. In these facilities, scientists were able to work without having to worry about funding, teaching, training the next generation of scientists and other university-related commitments. Moreover, the basic research at these facilities was often conducted with a long-term goal in mind, and taking a tortuous route (even if it took many years) to a solution was acceptable.

These industrial facilities have been replaced with increased funding at universities and at national laboratories such as Argonne National Laboratory. However, it is not clear whether entities such as these, which still require federal spending on basic science research can match the productivity of its industrial predecessors. At Bell Labs, there was more time, more money and fewer commitments for the employed scientists, as detailed in the great book Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. (That national labs cannot match industry standards is arguable though, and it should be said that the merits of national laboratories far outweigh the negatives.)

Ultimately, in my opinion, the lack of government spending is not the main inadequacy — there is a need for structural reform. Today in the US, much of basic science research is conducted at universities where professors offload most of the scientific legwork to graduate students to train them as future scientists. Professors are rarely working with each other in laboratories in the way that used to occur with the scientists at Bell. This is a major difference.

The lack of industrial facilities in the US undertaking basic science research (at least in physics) compared to years prior is, in my opinion, one of the major reasons for the decline in US innovation on this front. Throwing more money at the problem may not fix systemic flaws.

That being said, it’s not all bad. Companies like SpaceX, Tesla, Google, Apple and Intel are all doing great things for the American economy and applied sciences. The US federal government needs to figure out a method, though, to further incentivize these companies, that have the capability, to create large scale industrial laboratories (such as GoogleX and Tesla’s Gigafactory). This will spur long-term progress that will leave a mark on the next generation’s technological landscape.