Friday, December 05, 2014

Why fund basic science?

This video was the winner in the 2013 FASEB competition for "Stand Up for Science." The title was "Funding Basic Science to Revolutionize Medicine."

I'm sure their hearts are in the right place but I fear that videos like this are really just contributing to the problem. It makes the case that basic research should be funded because ultimately it will pay off in technologies to improve human health. If you buy into that logic then it's hard to see why you should fund research on black holes or studies of plate tectonics.

Don't we have a duty to stand up for ALL basic research and not just research that may become relevant to medicine? Besides, if the only important basic research that deserves funding is that which has the potential to contribute to medicine, then shouldn't funding be directed toward the kind of "basic research" that's most likely to pay off in the future? Is that what we want? I don't think evolutionary biologists would be happy but everyone working with cancer cells will be happy.

The best argument for basic research, in my opinion, is that it contributes to our knowledge of the natural world and knowledge is always better than ignorance. This argument works for black holes, music theory, and for research on the history of ancient India. We should not be promoting arguments that only apply to our kind of biological research to the exclusion of other kinds of basic research. And we should not be using arguments that reinforce the widespread belief that basic research is only valuable if it leads to something useful.




32 comments :

  1. The other argument of the same nature that only worsens the problem is that we should fund basic research because it prepares trained researchers who then go on to work on more useful stuff.

    And when you hear about "competitiveness", you know there is a big problem - science is a whole-of-humanity enterprise, above national borders and other silly divisions, so "competitiveness" of the kind that is meant in such contexts goes directly against the core ethics of science.

    There is also this inability or unwillingness (I think it's the former following the reasoning that there is no need to invoke more complicated scenario when mere ignorance suffices) that some of the greatest successes of science have been in delineating what is either not possible to do, or what is really not a good idea to try to do. That is just as, if not more valuable than all the cures and gadgets developed as a result of scientific progress yet it is never mentioned because it contradicts the party line of presenting science as a useful tool for technology development while completely ignoring the part about understanding the world.

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  2. Good observations here. Sounds much like the language of many public universities such as mine that talk about liberal arts education as if we were ITT Tech generating people for jobs as if it were the only goal of education.
    This also reminds me of Bill Nye and where I think he goes awry in his challenge to creationists. He is so focused on science as a producer of technology rather than a producer of knowledge. In many ways he, even if unintentionally, downplays historical sciences in his approach which plays right into the hands of Ken Ham and others since they can show that creationists can produce technology too. Joel

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  3. "I don't think evolutionary biologists would be happy but everyone working with cancer cells will be happy."

    What about evolutionary biologists working on cancer cells?

    "Besides, if the only important basic research that deserves funding is that which has the potential to contribute to medicine, then shouldn't funding be directed toward the kind of "basic research" that's most likely to pay off in the future?"

    If we could predict what would work, that actually *would* be a good idea. The problem is we aren't very good at making these predictions, and many focused research efforts have been failures in retrospect.

    "The best argument for basic research, in my opinion, is that it contributes to our knowledge of the natural world and knowledge is always better than ignorance. "

    That's kind of an empty platitude, though. *Why* is knowledge better than ignorance? Isn't it because knowledge is useful?

    "This argument works for black holes, music theory, and for research on the history of ancient India"

    But all of these are funded (if not to the same degree as medical research) based on their potential usefulness. People have speculated about creating small black holes for energy generation, music theory is useful to composers, and the history is India is important as India becomes a major power as the West has to learn more about its culture to understand how it will respond.

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    1. You appear to be making the argument that ultimate economic utility is the only reason for basic research. Is that true?

      I'm pretty sure that almost all evolutionary biology that looks at history more than a few million years old, at most, is and will remain useless in economic terms. As a big-picture phylogeneticist, I would struggle to make any other than the most tenuous and circuitous connection to "usefulness". Should we therefore fund no phylogenetic work? Or is it perhaps a matter of value to know about the historical relationships of life?

      OK, I could say that phylogeny helps us understand evolution, and understanding evolution helps in various ways, but the fact is that understanding the evolution of only certain taxa is economically important and will probably ever be. I really can't see how bird phylogeny is ever going to matter in the sense you're talking about. So, should we stop funding bird phylogeny altogether? How about beetle phylogeny?

      There is value beyond the economic. It's subjective, purely a product of human desires; but so is economic value.

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    2. Every piece of knowledge is useful on its own. I should probably clarify that when I talk about utility I mean utility in the conventionally understood sense, but I am actually also approaching the subject from an utilitarian perspective, it's just that my definition of utility is very different.

      There is deep value in evolutionary biology because by knowing how life developed (and what is perhaps more important, why it developed the way it did) we gain a better understanding of our place on this planet, and we can also better understand what might happen in the future.

      Which is extremely important, and would be perceived as immensely useful, if we as a species were thinking about the long-term future, i.e. on timescales of tens of thousands to millions of years, rather than the next quarter, next election cycles, or at most the next generation (it is very very few people who think about the future on longer time scales than that), which is where the horizons of the thinking of most people today reside.

      And it's not just phylogeny - deep-time geology and paleontology are in the same category (well, OK, geology is needed for the mining industry, but it is not that aspect of it that I am talking about) and are closely related to that subject. You can probably add cosmology to the list too.

      If decision-making today was informed by knowledge about the history of the planet from before the Archaean until now, it would look very different. But it's not.

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    3. John: "I'm pretty sure that almost all evolutionary biology that looks at history more than a few million years old, at most, is and will remain useless in economic terms. As a big-picture phylogeneticist, I would struggle to make any other than the most tenuous and circuitous connection to "usefulness"."

      Wow, excessively cynical.

      I'll name two applications.

      Ed Marcotte at UTA works on deep homology, studying the phylogeny not just of proteins, but of networks of interacting proteins (yes, the evolution of what Behe calls irreducibly complex systems.) In this way he has predicted previously unknown drug-protein interactions which had never been suspected experimentally; thus, old drugs can be repurposed to interfere with specific biochemical pathways. They've gotten such applications into clinical testing.

      Olivier Lichtarge developed a method called Evolutionary Trace, which inputs protein 3D molecular structures, biochemical details and sequence alignments of homologs, then builds a phylogenetic tree and predicts not just which amino acids in the protein are functional and interact with the substrate, but also which amino acids confer specificity for particular substrates, where substrates vary between homologs.

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    4. What taxa are we talking about here? Humans, a few economically important species, a few model organisms, pathogens? Why study the phylogeny of birds, rotifers, tenrecs? What good, in economic terms, is Afrotheria?

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    5. I'm not sure I understand your question. Marcotte studies deep homologies which could be at the level of, say, all vertebrates or at least all tetrapods. Going back hundreds of millions of years. The point is that networks of interacting proteins evolve on a time scale of tens to hundreds of millions of years.

      As for Lichtarge's method, you must input enough sequences to form a good phylogenetic tree but they must be diverse in sequence and biochemical function. Changes in substrate specificity evolve slowly, so a group of closely related species won't work. E.g. don't bother only analyzing sequences from primates. The more diversity, the better. All primates wouldn't work, all tetrapods might work, all vertebrates better than that, all eukaryotes will definitely work. Lichtarge published many papers predicting specific functions for specific amino acids, then confirmed them by experiment.

      So the time scales are sufficient to debunk Ken Ham's question, "What technologies were produced by assuming macroevolution?"

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    6. People have speculated about creating small black holes for energy generation,

      And grant-makers buy that? They must be pretty naive ;)

      music theory is useful to composers,

      How useful are composers, while we are at it? Their products satisfy out esthetic or emotional needs, but is it something more "practical" than the fact that the findings of basis science satisfy our intellectual curiosity?

      and the history is India is important as India becomes a major power as the West has to learn more about its culture to understand how it will respond.

      So only the history and culture of prospective world powers is important worth studying? Do you for a second believe that any Indologist who's spent a lifetime studying Sanskrit and the Vedic literature is motivated by the political and economic importance of present-day India?

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    7. "You appear to be making the argument that ultimate economic utility is the only reason for basic research. Is that true?"

      It isn't *just* economic usefulness that I'm talking about, but I do feel that every bit of research that we expect the public to pay for should have some value, whether it is economic, medical, security, or quality of life. Research competes with other benefits the government can offer its citizens; we owe it to the taxpayers to make it worth them giving up extra social services, transportation infrastructure, and the like that they could have instead.

      "There is deep value in evolutionary biology because by knowing how life developed (and what is perhaps more important, why it developed the way it did) we gain a better understanding of our place on this planet, and we can also better understand what might happen in the future."

      Precisely. It's not just empty trivia without use.

      "[People have speculated about creating small black holes for energy generation] And grant-makers buy that? They must be pretty naive ;)"

      It's a long shot, yes, but its exactly possibilities like this that make basic science fundable. Program officers at funding agencies are not dissimilar to venture capitalists; they know that most things they fund aren't going to be massively successful, but they want be known as somebody who was responsible for funding a future Nobel laureate just like venture capitalists want to be the person who funded the next Google.

      "How useful are composers, while we are at it? Their products satisfy out esthetic or emotional needs, but is it something more "practical" than the fact that the findings of basis science satisfy our intellectual curiosity?"

      Music is big business though -- recorded music is ~$16 billion/year industry alone, not to mention music in concerts, movies, tv shows, video games, etc. It is easy to make the economic argument for music theory based on this.

      "So only the history and culture of prospective world powers is important worth studying? Do you for a second believe that any Indologist who's spent a lifetime studying Sanskrit and the Vedic literature is motivated by the political and economic importance of present-day India?"

      During the Cold War, a very popular major in the US was Russian Studies. Why were so many people learning Russian, and reading about its history and literature? They were trying to understand through them the motivations of the current Soviet Union. Islamic Studies and Indic Studies are newly popular in the 21st century West for similar reasons.

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    8. but I do feel that every bit of research that we expect the public to pay for should have some value

      What about the value of stimulating young minds that will determine the course of the future?

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    9. What about the value of stimulating young minds that will determine the course of the future?

      A "practical application" (or example, really) of what I'm talking about:

      When the space program captured the imagination of the public, including young people, in the 1960s, how many people were motivated to pursue studies that led to them becoming scientists and engineers? Or even if they didn't become scientists and engineers, how many of these people were imbued with a respect for science as a means of dealing with societal challenges?

      I would argue the space program engaged people precisely *because* it was not aimed at practical applications that eventually emerged from the program (e.g., advances in computer hardware), but at the "big questions" for which most people have tremendous curiosity.

      Where is the current research into "big questions" that will engage the curiosity of young people in the way the space program did in the 1960s?

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    10. People were into the space program because they seriously believed in a future where people would live on the Moon and what not, and didn't see that the whole thing really was about testing technology for missiles. We didn't colonize the Moon and we won't colonize Mars. But the US (and/or China) probably will spend billions to send a guy to plant a flag on Mars despite not really being very scientifically informative.

      As for current "big science", there are things like the BRAIN initiative which are frankly more inspiring and more scientifically valid than the space programs, but of course there is the old debate on whether "big science" or small individual-PI driven research is the most effective use of research money.

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    11. Yes, I personally would rather see the whole hurling-people-into-space thing go away and be replaced by "more scientifically valid" missions. But neither that nor the question of whether "big science" or small diversified projects are more effective comes to grips with the issue of how to inspire young people regarding science. These folks will be the scientists of the future, and the politicians, and the voting public. So continuing support means getting kids to like the idea of doing basic scientific research or having it done by others.

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  4. The difficulty with focusing on only one aspect of science (e.g. medicine) relative to basic research is that one never knows where some study that, at the time, might not appear particularly relevant, will ultimate lead. Case in point, a paper by Albert Einstein on stimulated emission. Currently, the payoff from that research is the multi-billion dollar laser industry. Certainly, Einstein and his colleagues had not the faintest idea at the time as to the ultimate payoff of that research.



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  5. It is depressing how often we are required to write justifications for our research, justifications that must say how "translational" it is. All research in the U.S. that is funded by the NIH is supposed to be "translational". The translation desired is specifically into medicine.

    Now NSF, supposedly our only U.S. bastion of pure research, asks us more and more about impacts on the wider world, although they do allow public understanding of science to be a goal. And NSF is *much* worse funded than NIH. It is hard to get congresspeople to vote for any basic research at all.

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    1. This year I've served on the evaluation panel of a governmental granting agency in Poland. The agency in question provides support for basic research only, and any grant proposal that overemphasises the practical impact of the project or its "translational" character may be turned down just because of that. Still, many people can't resist the temptation to boast at length how terrifically useful their research is -- they simply can't believe that the board will not be impressed.

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    2. Pioter,
      I very well know where you are coming from... Now... lets face the facts...
      What do the evolution studies bring, according the same requirements you have alluded to...? If evolution is not nonsense...you tell me how I don't benefit by not embracing it ...How..? Let say ...I live in South Africa... which is very close to my heart...and I live in the slums... why would you spent 100 times or more money on evolution studies and shit than on improving the conditions of those unfortunate evolutionary beings...? Why..?According to Darwin... they can't and should not survive ... they are too weak because they are in the wrong environment and the natural selection should and will weed then out...

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    3. The existence of so many people living in slums is actually closely related ti the fact that most people have zero understanding of evolution. I would say it's even a causal relationship (in both directions).

      But one would not understand why if one does not understand evolution and you don't

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    4. Georgia,

      Is that right..?. Please link me to at lest 10 studies that definitely prove that...

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    5. Because just one that "definitely proves that" is not enough!

      Quest, you never disappoint. I'm so glad you're here defending ID-creationism.

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    6. Piotr, that's very interesting. Can you tell us how the panel came to have this emphasis on basic rather than applied research as part of its brief?

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    7. It's one of the panels of the National Science Centre whose statutory purpose is to support basic science (in the "continental" meaning of the word, including the humanities and the social sciences, which also have their basic research). At one point some of the smarter ministry officials must have realised that a research-funding policy based exclusively on the applicability of the results and the prospects of economic pay-off was slowly killing science by stifling theoretical progress, and that some of the money flow should be diverted to stimulate basic research. Most of the best universities in Poland are state-run. They used to received research funds from the central budget and doled them out to research workers, but in these competitive times the authorities prefer to distribute money via grants. The Ministry of Science and Higher Education did a bad good job of grant management, so a special agency was established to handle the procedures. Its budget is still modest and the chances of obtaining the grant if you apply for the first time are about one in nine on the average, I think, but having seen the Centre from the inside has convinced me that it's working quite well.

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    8. did a bad good job

      Oooops, did a BAD job. (I initially wrote "did not do a good job".)

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  6. The people are paying for the research. yet we don't owe them a easy fun job of research. They need to show they contribute to important progress. I have a interest in geomorphology and bump into papers from the advanced asian nations. I note, and its funny, how they must stress how some research point they did behind the paper is VERY USEFUL to the nation. for sure they must justify their money.
    i think our money should pay for research to our gain. Medicine is important. i hear about heaps of evolutionary psychology stuff that should not be financed.
    Remember whose money it is and how the common people don't have as fun jobs and get a chance for prestige.

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  7. It is curious that one can delve among ancient ruins or modern manuscripts, without any requirement that the knowledge gained be demonstrated useful, while science, since it often has produced 'useful' knowledge, must restrict itself to only doing so.

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  8. David Colquhoun has an appalling story on his Improbable Science site, at http://tinyurl.com/o8repgk about what happens when unqualified people get to decide which research is valuable and which is not. The opening sentence of the second paragraph provides the main message: “Now Stefan Grimm is dead. Despite having a good publication record, he failed to do sufficiently expensive research, so he was fired (or at least threatened with being fired).” The phrase “sufficiently expensive research” made my blood run cold. Fortunately I grew up in a time when it mattered rather little whether one’s research was expensive of not:if it had mattered I wouldn’t have survived, as the sort of things I wanted to do didn’t cost a lot of money. Of course, we all recognize that some projects cannot be pursued without a large financial investment, but it’s absurd to assess their worth on that basis.

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    1. Sad and horrifying, especially if you reflect how widespread this exploitative approach to research funding has become. So they told Professor Grimm how much grant income he was supposed to bring in every year (so that the Faculty could live off the indirect costs), or else...? Calling it a business is an understatement: it's a bloody racket.

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    2. ... what happens when unqualified people get to decide which research is valuable and which is not.

      What I find particularly disturbing is that in this case the people were anything but unqualified. They must have been fully aware of what they were doing to their colleague and his career, and how unfair it was. And despite their excellent qualifications they decided that research was "valuable" only if it brought in enough profit for the university.

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    3. Yes, that looks to be a new and truly disturbing twist to these things. The takeover of the university by administration has been a well known and relatively widely discussed trend. But now it seems that their way of thinking is being adopted by scientists too.

      That it would come to this is no surprise - it's a logical outcome in fact. If these conditions are met: 1) the university is run by administration, a not by actual scientists who first priority is the science, and 2) the university's incentive to support research is the grant money that come in and the cut it takes from it, it is only a matter of time before the role of the scientists from the point of view of the administration becomes reduced to how much money they bring in. And if they fail to meet the quota, why keep them? What is surprising is that it has taken so long for it to become so obvious.

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    4. Those of us who work in soft-money research professor positions (where 100% of our salary has to come out of grants) have long been aware of the reality of researchers as income sources to their institutions.

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  9. "What I find particularly disturbing is that in this case the people were anything but unqualified. They must have been fully aware of what they were doing to their colleague and his career, and how unfair it was."

    You're right, of course, Piotr. They damn well should be qualified, but somehow after reading David's earlier reports on how UK universities have been evolving during and after the glorious reign of Mrs Thatcher I'm no longer surprised about heads of departments who care nothing for what we used to regard as standards of decency. As David says "I don’t know how people like Martin Wilkins and Caroline Davis manage to sleep at night."

    I left the UK academic scene in 1987 -- late enough to see how things were moving, but early enough to escape the worst ravages. France has been moving in the same direction, but much more slowly and less single-mindedly, and it's still possible to study the things you want to study if it doesn't need a lot of money.

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