Sunday, December 29, 2013

Post # 89: Science and the Sandbox

I'm reading an interesting book that deals with the subject of how science gets done, and how it is converted to societal impact (one of my favorite subjects) – "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of Innovation".  I've also found one can gain interesting (sometime provocative) insights on the same subject from the Nobel Banquet Speeches of newly-donned Nobel Prize winners.  This week I read Dr. Randy W. Schekman's Dec. 10 Nobel Banquet Speech. Dr. Schekman is a co-winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  He delivered a short but thought-provoking speech on the role of government in "managing" science...
Schekman quotes from Vannevar Bush's (Bush was the science adviser to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman) 1945 report, "Science: Endless Frontiers":

"Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown ... Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for government support of science."

Schekman then goes on to lament the modern tendency for governments to meddle with scientists' exercise of their curiosity and talents:

"... And yet we find a growing tendency for government to want to manage discovery with expansive so-called strategic science initiatives at the expense of the individual creative exercise we celebrate today. Louis Pasteur recognized this tension long before the trend towards managed science. He wrote, "There does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are sciences and the application of science, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it".

With all due respect to Schekman, one is left with the impression he believes the more appropriate role of government is simply to spread funding around to a "Priesthood of Scientists".  The Priesthood, snug in their laboratory sanctuaries, and safe from the buffeting of current human and environmental realities, would deliver a continuing cornucopia of discoveries that would somehow solve society's and the planet's most pressing needs.  I guess, in Schekman's mathematics:

Funding + Faith – Oversight  = Useful Solutions


Schekman continues by citing Louis Pasteur as an example of someone who recognized the evils of "managed science".  While it is certainly true one can identify a plethora of examples in which the results of basic research yield unexpected impacts, the elapsed time between the research and the impact vary wildly.  (Brings to mind the old story about the blind hog underneath the acorn tree...)

But a  different view was offered back in 1997 by Donald Stokes, in his book, "Pasteur's Quadrant – Basic Science and Technological Innovation".  Stokes was himself, no lightweight.  For eighteen years he was the Dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  Among other things, he was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Public Administration, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

Contrary, to Schekman's view, Stokes, whose analysis of the interplay between unbridled scientific research and federal public policy spans the period from the late 1800s through the late 1990s, concludes that federal support should be focused on "use-inspired basic research" – research that is related to and focused on delivery of impact and results relevant to today's pressing challenges. (Italicized words are mine, not Stokes'.  Read his book for the details...)

There are of course, different perspectives on the relationship between "discovery science" and "applied research" and their justifications based on "delivered solutions" and "societal impact".  And then there's the question of the appropriate roles of the public vs. private sector,  and the individual  (or "lone wolf" ) researcher vs. large research organizations.  All of this, and much more can and should influence public policy relative to and federal funding of the scientific enterprise. 

With all due respect to Dr. Schekman,  I lean heavily toward Stokes' view.  From my vantage point scientific research (especially in the U.S.) suffers from multiple unhealthy realities and dissonant voices:
  1. A weakening of society's belief in absolute truth and the value of seeking it.  The unavoidable result of the weakening of belief in absolute truth is a devaluation of the search for it – a reduction of support for research and pursuit of knowledge.  Think about it...
  2. An entitlement mentality on the part of many in the scientific research business.  Schekman's comments (to me) hint of this attitude.  You can see it manifested in many quarters.  One that comes to mind is the aggressive position taken by SOME in the global climate change research community that we should pour enormous amounts of funding into the research agenda of the global climate change community without regard to requirements for true verification and validation of methods and models against real-world data (but that's a subject for a future blog.)
  3. Shrinking federal "discretionary" budgets.  Scientific research comes after paying the federal debt, entitlement programs, and national defense. (Who can argue with that?)
  4. A distortion of  Stokes' definition of "use-inspired basic research" by leaders in the federal research establishment.  It is very difficult to reconcile an objective reading of Stokes definition of use-inspired basic research, with some elements of the federal R&D portfolio for the past decade or two.  Pasteur wasn't playing around in a sandbox with blind faith that a cascade of useful solutions to pressing problems would somehow magically emerge.  He was focused on lines of research relevant to his chosen problem.  Things have begun to improve a bit with regard to federal R&D investments over the past few years, but I'm confident an objective review of the federal R&D portfolio would bring to light a plethora of "R&D investments" that are simply impossible to justify based on prudent public policy.
  5. A demand, in some quarters, that every federal research investment must be successful.  This risk-averse viewpoint, often touted by those claiming to be caretakers of the American Taxpayer, is misguided and whispers a misunderstanding of how scientific discovery, engineering research, and technology development enterprises work.  This relates closely to Schekman's (valid, in my view) lament that many in the government bureaucracy believe discoveries and breakthroughs can be "programmed" and scheduled.
  6. A focus on immediate return on scientific research investment by non-governmental entities.  This is (sort of) the opposite view of the entitlement crowd.  It is held and practiced by many industrial concerns.  "If we can't see a substantial return on our research investment within 2-3 years, we shouldn't be doing it." (I've blogged before about the embarrassing-low levels of research investment by the private sector in the nuclear energy arena.)
So, enough regurgitation of the status quo .  What are my proposed solutions?  

More about that in an upcoming post! :)

Just Thinking &
Happy New Year!


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