Once again, we’ll be returning to the rantings of Mr. John Tyson. This week, we’re going to examine his opinions on scientific research. Tyson’s exact words are as follows: “Researchers are paid independently of whether they figure something out or whether what they figure out is of use to anyone.”
Researchers are paid regardless of whether they discover something or whether what they discover is of use to anyone. In order to really examine this claim, we need to know what Tyson means by “of use to anyone.” Since we can’t ask him, I’m going to be generous and assume that “of use to anyone” means technological or medical knowledge that can be used to improve human life.
When I first watched Tyson’s video, I concluded that “of use to anyone” meant discoveries that would eventually lead to products that could be sold for profit. He’s very rooted in the philosophies of market economics, and he seems to sneer at careers in the public sector. However, concluding that Tyson is only interested in “marketable” science could be a straw man argument; so we’re going to be generous. Why am I telling you this? Because objectivity demands that we be as conservative as possible in our assumptions. This means we always give our opponents the benefit of the doubt. So far as this blog is concerned, Tyson is interested in science that will lead to measurable improvements in our quality of life regardless of whether or not anyone makes a profit.
The biggest problem with this attitude is that it is completely at odds with the fundamental principles of scientific inquiry. A scientist – much like a journalist – is an objective observer. He has a hypothesis about the results of his experiment, but in the end, he is only interested in the truth. He has no personal stake in the outcome. A good scientist is just as pleased to see his hypothesis disproved as he is to see it confirmed. As a student of mathematics, Mr. Tyson should know this.
Why can’t scientific researchers guarantee their results? For my part, I think this attitude is caused by a spectator bias. The general public only hears about those studies and experiments that produce a firm, verifiable conclusion. We never hear about all those studies that yield inconclusive results. That being the case, it’s easy to think that scientists who don’t discover something concrete aren’t doing their jobs.
Research is slow, painstaking work. A skilled researcher in any field will have dozens of failures before she has one success. You have to have the failures to get the successes. If we were to stop funding research that couldn’t guarantee practical results, we’d never have any new discoveries. Worse yet, if we made researchers’ livelihoods dependent on some tangible outcome… Well, we saw last week that teachers started fudging results when their funding was dependent on standardized tests. Do you really want medical researchers doing that?
Does the USA just throw money at scientists to research whatever they want without supervision of any kind?
Let’s take a look at the grant application process.
This is actually a bit more difficult than you might think because there are actually several hundred federal grants in the United States, and the process is different for each one. It turns out that eligibility depends a great deal on which grant you apply for and what you plan to research.
Since we can’t go through the process for each one, I decided to pick something abstract: in this case, grants for behavioural and social science research offered by the National Institute of Health. Here are the eligibility requirements listed on their website.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issues this Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) to encourage research project grant applications (R01) employing behavioral and social science theories, concepts, and methods (1) to improve understanding of the causes of disparities in health and disability among the various populations of the United States and (2) to develop and test interventions for reducing and eventually eliminating health disparities. The goal is to move beyond documenting the existence of health and disability disparities to addressing causes and solutions.
In other words, research that is aimed at making people healthier. Sounds perfectly useful to me.
These are some of the criteria on which applicants will be judged.
Does the project address an important problem or a critical barrier to progress in the field? If the aims of the project are achieved, how will scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice be improved? How will successful completion of the aims change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?
Are the PD(s)/PI(s), collaborators, and other researchers well suited to the project? If Early Stage Investigators or New Investigators, or in the early stages of independent careers, do they have appropriate experience and training? If established, have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments that have advanced their field(s)? If the project is collaborative or multi-PD/PI, do the investigators have complementary and integrated expertise; are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project?
Does the application challenge and seek to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms by utilizing novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions? Are the concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions novel to one field of research or novel in a broad sense? Is a refinement, improvement, or new application of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions proposed?
Are the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses well-reasoned and appropriate to accomplish the specific aims of the project? Are potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success presented? If the project is in the early stages of development, will the strategy establish feasibility and will particularly risky aspects be managed?
If the project involves clinical research, are the plans for 1) protection of human subjects from research risks, and 2) inclusion of minorities and members of both sexes/genders, as well as the inclusion of children, justified in terms of the scientific goals and research strategy proposed?
Will the scientific environment in which the work will be done contribute to the probability of success? Are the institutional support, equipment and other physical resources available to the investigators adequate for the project proposed? Will the project benefit from unique features of the scientific environment, subject populations, or collaborative arrangements?
Each application is judged by a peer-review process. After all that, can we say that these projects merit the use of America’s hard-earned tax dollars?
We’re not qualified to judge.
These proposals are being evaluated by experts in the field of medicine; so who are we, the laypeople, to argue? It sounds anti-democratic, I know, but science isn’t subject to majority rule. Proper evaluation of these projects requires knowledge and expertise that most of us simply do not possess. You can’t just go on the Internet and claim, “They’re wasting our tax dollars on nothing!” if you don’t even have the technical background to understand most of the proposals. And no, that comment is not meant to single out Mr. Tyson; I can’t evaluate his knowledge level.
Science is about getting to the truth; it’s not about making new gadgets. That’s a pleasant side-effect.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
It’s had some great reviews!