How to fund research?

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Ivan Delgado
Ivan Delgado's picture
How to fund research?

For those that were in a research lab during the Clinton years you may have experienced how great research can be when funding is not limiting. If you got your first grant back then (1998-2003, a period that saw the NIH budget doubled) likely you were faced with some tough problems trying to renew your RO1 during the Bush years, a time when research funding remained flat (i.e., less money was being allocated to fund research relative to the size of the economy). These boom and bust cycles are very detrimental to a country's research community as it saps confidence and continuity (just ask the thousands of scientists that had to quit research the last few years as a result of inadequate research funding).
It is a recognized fact that in today's world countries that are "ahead of the curve" are the ones that invest in technology and research. This almost without exception translates to a higher standard of living for its population.
The fraction of the US budget (of around $3 trillion) that has gone to research lately has been in the neighborhood of 0.5 - 1.0% (just look at the almost $800 billion stimulus package: $10 billion, or about 1.2%, went to the NIH - that is a significant increase compared to the last few years).
So what do you think? Should science receive a set percentage of the US budget every year? This does not mean science should receive more money, just its fair share of the economy it helps build. I mean, why shouldn't the US allocate a set 2% of our budget every year to research if we use up 8% of our budget every year to pay the interest on the national debt?

heehawmcduff's picture
I am a UK based scientist who

I am a UK based scientist who is shortly moving to the US but I think agree with the concept of research gaining a set percentage of funding based on the economy of the country in which it is conducted. 
However I think this method would raise a few interesting questions:
1. With the larger amount of funding would this mean that competition for funding would decrease?
2. Would this in turn increase the amount of research that is ineffective and poorly performed?
3. Would scientists in poorer countries move to richer countries where more research is performed meaning that funding levels would be more thinly distributed between increased numbers of researchers?
Another thing that would be interesting to know is, if science received a set percentage of economic based funding i.e. 2%, what is the percentage that science actually brings to the economy?
Just thinking out loud

Ivan Delgado
Ivan Delgado's picture
Great questions and I do not

Great questions and I do not think there is a yes or no answer to any of them. In a world where many people believe that it is in humanity's best interest not to contaminate our environment, we have a ridiculous amount of contamination going on. On that line of thinking you could argue that if you are a poor country (say China) and you are trying to develop, then it is "acceptable" to generate tons of pollution to reach the level of affluence of a more developed country (say Sweden). In this very limited scenario, Sweden would invest more in research because they cannot simply burn tons of carbon to generate their energy: the standard of living of their population demands a more conscientious approach to their environment, even if the solution they come up with is not economically competitive to China's burning of coal. My point here is: we need to look at the big picture, and this may well require not just an analysis of a country's economy, but its impact long term in the global economy. Having said that, here are my thoughts on your questions: 
1. I think that as it is there is less competition in some areas already. For example it is a known fact in the US that if you somehow make your grant sound like it will tackle the hot issue of the day (like cancer), then you have a disproportionate chance of obtaining the money, even if your grant is of significantly less quality than another grant that does not tackle the hot topic of the day. Having more money will likely not make obtaining funding easier since, in my view, the money would be allocated to areas that are severely underfunded instead of just pumping even more money into areas that are over-funded. I have confidence in this because of the current president we have, who is interested in science (a few months ago I would not have even considered this idea). 
2. Very good point. It is entirely possible that this would be the case, but then again who can truly say what is "ineffective and poorly performed" research? From a scientist's perspective we tend to assume that when there is little money only the best research gets funded, and as more money is available the additional research that gets funded is of lower quality. Typically thought this is not the whole story. A fair proportion of the research that gets funded may not be of the best quality, just the research that was best sold in a grant application (not necessarily the best scientist, but maybe the ones that know how to best write a grant). In short, by expanding the amount of research that is funded we may likely increase waste, but also the percentage of waste will likely remain at the same level. The added bonus is that we may end up funding research that is truly revolutionary but that did not get funded before because it did not make the cut. Someone's "ineffective and poorly performed" research is another's breakthrough: just look at Craig Venter and his shotgun method of DNA sequencing: the NIH did not fund his grant to develop this method of DNA sequencing so he went on his own into private industry. The result: shotgun DNA sequencing because the standard that sequenced the human genome and almost all the other genomes sequenced so far to this day.
3. Sadly this is a reality even today, but I think this issue has more to do with other country's not provide adequate funding for their own scientists and less with the US providing great opportunities for scientists all over the world. I think one could argue that the number of innovations coming from the US (and Europe and Asia) have spread worldwide to such an extent that research has started to develop in other countries as well. For example Brazil is now a DNA sequencing powerhouse thanks to a great extent to developments in DNA sequencing technology in the US. I would not be surprised that some Brazilian scientists contributed to this development in the US and that now many more Brazilian scientists are reaping the benefits of these new technologies back in Brazil. 
Lastly, I think it is close to impossible to measure the contribution science brings to an economy. For example many people argue that going to the moon is a ridiculous endeavor when we do not even know what is in our oceans. But when you start to tease apart all that comes from research (and even the military) you find an amazing number of innovations that benefit society immensely. For example the US space program developed teflon and velcro, while the US military developed the Internet. Placing $$$ values to these innovations would be deceiving since to a great extent they were pillars that developed many other innovations and applications (and even ways of life).
Just discussing back out loud :). Thanks for your thoughts.