Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 10.4

With the upcoming election here in the US, there has been much talk as of late about how we as a nation choose to spend our money. It seems that science funding tends to be among the first items on the chopping block.
Should the government be spending money on science? If so, how do we communicate the importance of funding scientific research to the general public who may be much more concerned with more immediate matters? Could private companies take the place of government funding? Should they?

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43 Comments

  1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts cognitive needs a lot higher than social, security, or physiological needs. How can you justify adding to the science budget when we haven’t taken care of many American’s most basic necessities?

  2. I can’t believe this is even debatable. Of course the government should be spending money on science. The state must encourage progress in science and technology. Leaving it all up to the profit-motivated private sector would be ridiculous.

  3. I wonder if funding through some kind of non-profit would work… like donor’s choose for science… they could get involved with producing content (video, web, blogs, radio..) in order to promote voluntary participation from the public.

    kinda out there… and it would certainly be more effort than just printing or stealing the money like we do now… but I like to think it could work.

  4. No, sorry, there simply is no money left for funding science, discovery, education, and all that crap. We’ve got real problems that call for real money. They’re not cheap, those lobbyists that keep us from dragging down our financial system with too much regulation. Also, if you’re spending money on science, how will you pay for a solid year (or more) of presidential campaigning? And war costs a FORTUNE, particularly when we have to “go it alone” with zero support from any other countries.

    No, with all these priorities, there’s simply no way we can pour more money into researching trivialities like energy and the climate.

  5. Absolutely more money needs to be poured into science programs (music programs, too, for that matter, which encourages a creative process in a different method).

    If there were more funding to science, we wouldn’t have the whole “teach the controversy” thing going on. Because if public schools spent more time teaching scientific process and terminology, something like ID wouldn’t have been able to sneak in on our now lax scientific education standards.

    (Note – while I have no problem with individual belief, I have a huge problem with comparing personal belief with internationally accepted peer-reviewed science.)

    I was actually lucky enough to go to TJHSST in its early years. I know our lab facilities would not have been as kick @ss as they were if it weren’t for the additional corporate sponsorship provided. It wasn’t like our labs were hugely branded or anything, but we knew fully well that the cool robotics lab or the incredible Telecommunications lab would not have been possible without a corporate boost. Sad but true.

    As for how we get the message across? You can get great materials for that at the NCSE (at least for evolutionary theory issues).

    Other than that, when I work with kids (individually or through volunteer gigs at museums), I first stress the fun stuff, then I stress the cool stuff, then I talk to them about the hard science stuff. If you can show them a big old Mammoth tooth and show them wear patterns and compare it to eating celery vs. a hot dog, trust me, you see that “science is way cool” spark in their eyes. Hell, you see it in adults’ eyes, too, if you do it correctly.

    NCLB in many ways was a problem for science education. I was considering going back and becoming an “Earth Science” teacher. But even though I’ve worked with young teachers in our community to help them liven up their science curricula and have been teaching for years, I wasn’t qualified to teach in the upper realms of K-12 without a teaching degree. Or even an advanced teaching degree in some parts of the country. So people like me – who can be very effective at teaching the things they are passionate about – can’t even substitute teach anymore. We have to get a second degree on top of whatever degree we already have before anyone lets us in a classroom. Which makes no sense in many respects.

    I think the popularity of shows like Mythbusters (and the general popularity of the Discovery Channel in general) shows that there is actually a large part of the country that do find science cool. We need to tap into that somehow.

    Okay, I’m rambling. I’ve been cleaning the basement and inhaling dust fumes…

  6. @Danb: Love the avatar! We obviously watch the same show… “Budda dum budda dum budda dum…!”

    Anyway, I think the primary reason for government funding in science and technology is for basic research in areas that are too difficult or expensive for the private sector. Examples are projects like the Super Collider or the ISS. (Raise your hand if you think it’s mortifying to have to depend on the Russians to get to the ISS after 2010 to at least 2014 ..I thought so…)

    A secondary role is to help start and support entirely new fields, such as the US did with the airline industry in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

    Part of the reason that science gets cut when the budget gets tight is because there are far fewer vocal people defending science than there are defending other projects. The politicians do it because they can get away with losing the least votes for the cuts.

    I definitely agree with Chasmosaur that there is a large demand and interest in the sciences in the US. Channels like the Discovery Channel wouldn’t be on cable if there wasn’t any interest. Look at the number of hits the NASA and ESA websites get during major missions, for example.

    I see no reason why the private sector can’t help out, but they should NOT expect exclusive rights to the fruits of the research if it is being done on educational or government property by professors, students and government scientists. They have to learn to share, just like spoiled kindergarteners.

    Speaking of the US electoral process, I am all in favor of a large lump sum of federal money given to each candidate at the beginning of the election cycle – and that’s ALL they can have to run with. No donations from anyone.
    Yes, some may say that would be an abridgement of free speech. I think it would be an impressive way to demonstrate each candidate’s ability to budget well and get jobs done. Yeah, I know. I’m a dreamer. :-D

  7. How about this for an approach? We declare all federally funded research in part or whole a “natural” resource held in common by US citizens. To the extent that companies then use this research to then bring products or services to market, they’d need to pay royalties into public coffers.

    Too simplistic. Probably. But the public might be far more willing to fund science, if it held balance the budget …

  8. Are we talking about Science or Engineering?

    Because all the examples cited so far as being “Science” and “Science Problems” have actually being “Engineering” and “Engineering Problems”

    Science is a process, employing experiments to test theories. It doesn’t produce anything more substantial than ink on paper.

    Engineering is the process by which scientific theories are “made useful”

    For example; Newton and Einstein (gravity, acceleration, celestial mechanics) = Science. VonBraun and Koreilov (missiles, rockets, satelites) = Engineering.

    Basically if the solution to a problem involves making a physical change to a real object you’ve got an engineering problem on your hands

    Mythbusters almost entirely takes on Engineering issues not scientific ones.

  9. How about every taxpayer is presented with a list of areas where their money might go. They check off those areas where they want their tax bill to be spent. The public gets what the public wants. No individual’s total tax burden is altered by this. They don’t choose how much they pay, but they choose how much they pay for what.

    I would check the basic research box (in addition to several others). I don’t like the idea of deciding for everyone else.

    For those so inclined, a “General Fund” category could be included, with the Congress having these dollars to play with.

    I am a Hedge

  10. @Mark Mulkerin:

    How about this for an approach? We declare all federally funded research in part or whole a “natural” resource held in common by US citizens. To the extent that companies then use this research to then bring products or services to market, they’d need to pay royalties into public coffers.

    Your proposal rings a bell. I think I’ve heard of this idea before. Ah yes, it was called “taxes”.

    I am a Hedge

  11. I wouldn’t propose shifting all funding from basic research to applications, but if you want the buy in from the general public, it might be easier if you can show tangible monetary links between government “investments” and science/engineering research, it might be more popular.

    For example, if scientifically feasible, we might still be funding FutureGen on the hopes of exporting clean coal technology to China (in exchange for lead coated toys). If not feasible, invest it in something else.

    If you are concerned about basic research, set up an intergovernmental panel of scientists, government reps, and business men to assign royalty values for the contribution of basic and applied research to a given new product. After all, we already allow patent holders to license their technology, this would be an attempt to give financial credit to the science upstream.

    Is this unteniable as is? You bet, but don’t tell me that since I already am aware there are problems. Suggest a better alternative that links public dollars to public good in a way that even a neo-con could understand.

    As for libertarian baiting, all you really have to do is use the word government without an expletive and you will likely upset numerous libertarians. :)

  12. Hedge – Unless we get government entirely out of the business of funding science of any kind, wouldn’t you rather have a system where the people see a return on what they were taxed on? Not unlike Alaskans getting money from Oil and Gas companies …

    Personally, I regard science like I regard roads and bridges – part of the infrastructure of a nation. We need them to function as an advanced society. Should we pay for them out of taxes? I believe so, you can believe differently; however, it is always reasonable to ask do we need this particular new bridge or those new roads or research into whether beauty makes you attractive.

  13. Of course the gov’t needs to fund science. There’s a reason our standard of living is so high, and it ain’t due to superstition or politics. Not just applied science and engineering, pure research too. I just can’t see the US building something like the LHC, not with the current attitude. Too few people see that today’s innovations are the result of past decades curiosity.

    More science! More engineering! More math! More logic!

  14. The post office operates at a loss. Companies like DHL and Fedex could easily and profitable replace the post office in urban areas. However, since a large portion of the US does not live in urban areas, the post office subsidizes its rural/suburban operations with the money it makes in cities, as well as tax payer dollars.

    This is tolerated in a capitalist society because it is seen that the post office’s positive effect on the economy (by getting information and products to customers who would not be served by for profit only services) out weights the cost.

    I don’t think any sane person DOESN’T believe that the government should support large science and engineering projects, because the money they spend comes back in the form of new jobs and new industries.

    The question then is not “Should the government support large scale S&E?” The question is “By what process should the government choose which S&E projects to support.” The government, effectively being a monopoly, and thus having no competitive force on its work, has been notoriously bad at picking projects to support.

    For every ARPAnet theres a backwheel steering motorcycle (A real DOT project from the 70’s) For every NACA airfoil, theres a field dying of kudzu infestation from Soil Conservation Service meddling.

    What we really need to know is how to apply the peer review process that keeps bad science on the margins to the process of deciding who gets government grants.

    Also, I wouldn’t object to more nuclear science and less nuclear weapons.

  15. @russellsugden: So, cut the science budget and concentrate on developing practical applications of the exsisting science, i.e. Engineering

    ———————–

    Even if we assumed that your line between science and engineering was accurate and absolute–and it isn’t either–I think there’s a problem with your basic approach.

    Basic research has the most public domain value and the least direct market value. Creating novel engineering solutions to known, specific problems using well understood science has the most direct market value, and arguably less public domain value.

    The biggest problem that I see with all government grants for non-classified research is that such grants can be used to produce patented technology that is not in the public domain, and is published in journals that are not free to the public.

    I would suggest that state and federal money only be used on projects that are open standard/open source, published in journals that are freely available (on the PLoS model, for example). The knowledge gained from tax money (with the exception of classified military projects, I suppose) should be available to the general public.

    General understanding of the world is crucial to a nation of our size, and open understanding is crucial to policy. If we had better understanding of ant hills or weather patters, we would have a better understanding of our economy, better models of our economy, and we would know with more certainty whether this 700 billion dollar economic stabilization package is a brilliant idea or a total turd sandwich.

  16. Yes, absolutely, but obviously not exclusively. If we simply take the role of government to be taking action on behalf of a collective that individuals actors cannot take, big science fits the bill-access to reality is pretty well public, the horizon for turning bleeding edge science into useful technology extends beyond the R&D cycles of selfish actors (especially when you’re not sure what it’s good for,) but is nevertheless of profound use, the scale of things like particle accelerators and space telescopes demand funding from a foundation of everyone

    Furthermore, while the various case studies and simulations of cultural and corportate, decline and collapse do differ, a major theme emerges that organizations that, in the face of financial and military crises, cut R&D funding because it doesn’t look useful today, or looks like money that can put food on the table, invariably burn faster. Hacking science funding because some Americans are in a pinch is a surefire way to guarantee more will be in a pinch tomorrow.

  17. @sethmanapio: I never fail to be amazed at the number of people who feel qualified to comment on Science yet know nothing about it. Go away and read Karl Popper, learn a bit about Falisification and that’ll bring you up to the 1930’s understanding of the Philosophy of Science. Then you’ll only be about 70 years behind the times.

    If you happen to read a Popular Scientific Journal such as Nature or Science (Scientific American and NewScientist are reffered to as Comics in acdemic tea-rooms), you’ll appriciate just how esoteric real science is.

    For example, no reputable journal has said “Climate change is man made”, a great deal of science journalists have, but scientific papers use the much more circumspect language of probabilities, confidence intervals and hypothesis testing.

  18. @Mark Mulkerin:

    Hedge – Unless we get government entirely out of the business of funding science of any kind, wouldn’t you rather have a system where the people see a return on what they were taxed on?

    I’m taxed for roads, and I see a return on this in the form of roads thaI can use and that others can use to transport goods to my home and to stores near me. I don’t think we should install toll booths on all roads and distribute the proceeds back to the taxpayers. If there where no return to me from science funding, then I would see no justification for taking my money to fund science. As it is, there is a return to me (even if I am not always able to predict, or even detect, what that return is). Placing some form of additional royalty or fee system on anyone making use of the knowledge generated from government-funded research seems to be adding an additional layer of inefficiency to the process.

    I am a Hedge

  19. @truthwalker:

    I don’t think any sane person DOESN’T believe that the government should support large science and engineering projects, because the money they spend comes back in the form of new jobs and new industries.

    Would it be safe to take this as hyperbole? Would you propose involuntary commitment for those who disagree with you on this political view?

    I am a Hedge

  20. @truthwalker:

    The government, effectively being a monopoly, and thus having no competitive force on its work, has been notoriously bad at picking projects to support.

    This assumes that the government has no external forces operating on it (such as corporations funneling millions of dollars to influence votes) to effect how it picks projects.

    This is of course not correct.

  21. @russellsugden:
    I’m talking about both – basic scientific research and engineering that is simply too large scale, expensive, time-consuming, etc. for the private sector to undertake.

    @detroitus: I don’t take it that way at all. By definition, a Libertarian would not support such. :-D

    I agree with MikeMilkerin in that it is part of being a 21st century leader. Just one big success (something like controlled use of fusion that produced more power than it consumed) licensed to other countries and companies could potentially make the US the next “OPEC.” IMHO, fusion is both basic research and engineering. I suspect that we don’t know as much as we think we do about fusion yet.

    @truthwalker: In many cases, that is true. OTOH, consider the Manhattan Project. No private entity could have afforded it or kept it secret. Yes, it wasn’t as efficiently run as it could have been. Perhaps that’s the price we had to pay for an emergency project at time?

    Just another thought using the example of something currently thought to be unlikely: a working, practical FTL drive. I think all of us would love to see a working FTL drive a la Star Trek/Star Wars. However, I can see no private company ever developing one, because few investors have the patience to wait possibly 50 years (if ever?) to see a return on their investment. However, a long-term committment by the government (if that’s possible) could bring such a drive. Note: The idea here I am arguing for is long-term government support, not the FTL drive itself.

    @truthwalker: One reason for supporting the USPS is that a profit making entity like UPS or FedEx would drop mail delivery outside of urban areas in a heartbeat. That is why the government supports it, which supports my thesis that government should do that which is necessary, but not profitable for private business to do.

  22. @QuestionAuthority: I agree 100%, private companies are incapable of running big projects, as the seem to see them as a “money pump”. Three great examples: 1. London Crossrail (if you don’t know about it, google it, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry) 2. The A1-M1 link road. Two Junctions and a Mile of road, hardly the great wall of china, finished 5 years late and as they “forgot” to put a cambre on the road surface every time it rained (which it does 360 days a year in Leeds) the flat surface became an aqua-plane death trap. After the 30th death it was decided to rip the whole thing up and re-lay it, which took another year (we’re taking about 1 mile of road) and eventually cost so much it would have been CHEAPER to pave the whole mile in one inch thick gold. 3. The Leeds tram network, been “on-going” for 25, TWENTY-FIVE years, has cost >£50million and they have yet to turn the first shovel of earth!

    FTL drive is utter nonsense. Never going to happen. Don’t look for it. It’s a nice fantasy, but that’s all it is.

  23. HPB – You could have gotten 3 PHds by now if you spent more time working and less time taking pictures of yourself.

    I am tempted to change my gravatar to compete, but I wouldn’t want to cause anyone to lose their lunch…

  24. Hedge – Lacking Spock’s brain linked to a planetary supercomputer making the most logical societal choices, we have to pick the inefficiencies that do the least damage and hopefully promote public good. Given that we already have patent and copyright law that introductions inefficiencies so that people can pay to use ideas, it doesn’t seem completely unwarranted to look at extending the system.

    The underlying question is how do we fund open-ended research that doesn’t have an easily definable end product. How do we fund the expensive LHC’s or the biologist who may trek around the Amazon looking at amphibians and come across one that produces a medically useful toxin?

    The truth is most people in the US haven’t drunk the ambrosia of science. They don’t regard it as integral to their lives and don’t see the connection between studying polar bear hibernation as pertinent to Aunt Gertrude’s bone loss at the old folk’s home.

    Can we educate the larger public to become emotionally and intellectually invested in basic science? Maybe, but if we can get them financially invested in it, then they are hooked.

    But what is the best method for private-public partnerships that have broad support? Russellsugden’s example suggest an avenue of inquiry. How are other government’s doing it? What is working? What isn’t? What is different about their publics? Surely, we have any number of people who have lived or worked outside the US who might know something about how a given government addresses the issue. Perhaps someone would like to share?

  25. @wtworm
    lol! hpb has a sense of humor, too, you know. i could’ve had a handful of them by now if i hadn’t wasted so much time on a lot of other things, too! but like a wise man once told me, it’s not where you start, it’s where you end up.

  26. @wytworm:

    Yes. To support opt-out would require the development of some method by which the opt-outer could be barred from any of the benefits.

    I meant “involuntary commitment” to a mental institution, because truthtalker said every sane person agreed with his/her position.

    I am a Hedge

  27. @Mark Mulkerin:

    Can we educate the larger public to become emotionally and intellectually invested in basic science? Maybe, but if we can get them financially invested in it, then they are hooked.

    Maybe you can clear this up for me, but you (indeed, along with just about everyone here) seem to be saying that it doesn’t matter if people want their money spent on something, as long as the right people decide that it’s worth it. Rather than spend the effort to persuade people that your priorities are valuable, it is better to just take their money and spend it on things they don’t understand or value, because once enough money has been committed to a particular project it will be more difficult to pull the plug on it.

    Is that accurate, or am I misunderstanding you?

    I am a Hedge

  28. Hedge – The US is still theoretically a democratic republic so the “right people” deciding how our money is spent are elected by we ,the people.

    You don’t like it – run for office. Take campaign contributions from other skeptics. Make a stand. Hedge for VP – gotta be better than Palin. I’d vote for you.

    However, I’m not inclined to try to justify the rights of taxation of an elected government – a skeptic’s blog ain’t the best place to rehash 200+ years of political theory and debate. But there are lots of programs I consider to be misguided or moronic and to the extent that I can participate in the system, I will (living abroad makes it kinda difficult).

    So what I’m saying is if you don’t like what Congress and the Senate and local governments are doing, complain – when they don’t listen, try to get them kicked out of office. Or at least ridicule them on youtube.

    The reason I suggested allowing the public to financially benefit from research dollars is because I’d rather have my taxes developing new green technologies than building main line battle tanks to fight … who’s military is a threat to the US again, I forget.

  29. @Mark Mulkerin:

    The US is still theoretically a democratic republic so the “right people” deciding how our money is spent are elected by we, the people

    I think I see your point, although I don’t fully agree. I’ve been a bit disappointed that even in forums such as this, where critical thinking and reasoned arguments are highly valued, that there is still a strong resistance to the idea that persuasion should be the primary means of getting people to do what you want. If a particular endeavor is worthwhile, and valuable enough that people should pay for it, then one should be able to persuade people of this in sufficient numbers to have that endeavor funded voluntarily.

    So what I’m saying is if you don’t like what Congress and the Senate and local governments are doing, complain – when they don’t listen, try to get them kicked out of office. Or at least ridicule them on youtube.

    Or, attempt to persuade potentially like-minded people via a forum such as this? This must be as effective as spouting of on you tube. (?)

    The reason I suggested allowing the public to financially benefit from research dollars is because I’d rather have my taxes developing new green technologies than building main line battle tanks…

    I think the way to have military spending decrease is to spend less on military items, not spending more elsewhere. The federal government doesn’t seem to evaluate its budget, determine it is too high, and choose to start reducing investment in military infrastructure because green technologies are so important. That is, they don’t seem to view the total budget amount as fixed, so funds going to one place are not available for others. I would be totally behind a decrease in spending on tanks etc. I don’t see that as directly related to whether money should be spent on other things.

    The fact that you don’t like the current spending priorities could make you more sympathetic to my point. The problem may be the centralized mechanism for determining priorities and funneling large amounts of money to those projects favored by the people currently in power. Rather than attempt to get that power, and thus be in a position to determine those priorities ourselves, maybe we should attempt to change the mechanism itself. If our priorities are in fact the most reasonable, then we would have the upper hand in persuading people to spend their money in ways we value.

    I am a Hedge

  30. @Mark Mulkerin:

    …who’s military is a threat to the US again, I forget.

    It’s the Canadians. As the great Al Yankovic warns:

    “What kind of freaks are that polite?
    It’s got to be they’re all up to something
    so quick, before they see it coming
    time for a pre-emptive strike”

    (By the way, Al has a new single being released tomorrow (10/07) at iTunes)

    I am a Hedge

  31. @russellsugden: I never fail to be amazed at the number of people who feel qualified to comment on Science yet know nothing about it. Go away and read Karl Popper, learn a bit about Falisification and that’ll bring you up to the 1930’s understanding of the Philosophy of Science.

    —————-

    And this related to my comment how? Since you know exactly zero about my knowledge of science or philosophy, and neither were addressed in my comment, don’t you think that it is I who should be amazed at your willingness to revel in your own ignorance?

    I say again, your understanding of the fine line between science and engineering lacks subtlety. Engineers engage in basic research, and scientists engage in applications research, because there is no sharp line between the two things. It is a continuum. And your idea about funding the applications side with public money is a bad idea that ignores fundamental market realities.

  32. @Mark Mulkerin: Given that we already have patent and copyright law that introductions inefficiencies so that people can pay to use ideas, it doesn’t seem completely unwarranted to look at extending the system.

    ————–

    1. Extending a lousy idea doesn’t make it a good idea.

    2. If the taxpayers fund the idea they shouldn’t have to pay extra to use it.

    The public will not become more attached to science if it becomes harder to learn about it, or harder to take advantage of the research. Carl Sagan has a great bit in “Cosmos” about the library of Alexandria. He hypothesizes that the people were willing to let the library burn because the library was not for them, it was not an institution of sharing.

    I would argue that the purpose of government grants should be to produce public domain knowledge. Knowledge that is accessible to anyone with access to any public library in the US, and possibly in the world, and that can be used by anyone in the world.

    I cannot imagine what computer science would be like if quicksort, heapsort, bucketsort, and the other core routines for sorting had been patented. To an extent, open source programming languages like Perl would be impossible. Yet, today, government funding goes to create patented algorithms, crippling our ability to innovate into the future.

    When the people pay for something, they have the right to use it.

  33. Hedge – Always happy to have a conversation. The challenge as I see it, is that most people aren’t interested or prepared for complicated conversations. They want – “A Change we can believe in” or “Drill, Baby, Drill.” How do we engage them in a dialog about resource allocation in an intelligent way when they’d rather be watching Paris Hilton? That is why I want to give them a vested interest in basic research. Is it shallow? You bet, but have you noticed humanity recently?

    Seth – If you can convince corporations to share their proprietary information for the better of humanity, I’m with you. I like open source. Open source is cool. Open source rocks.

    Perhaps, you misunderstood my point since I agree that taxpayers shouldn’t pay for an idea they’ve funded. Unfortunately, as things stand, the government frequently use your money to fund research that is open source right up to the point a company takes it over, patents or copyrights it, and charges for it to be licensed. My little thought experiment only suggested that when a company takes a product or service to market that they have patented which demonstrably benefited from publicly funded research, shouldn’t the public get something back for their investment of tax dollars?

    If you have a better way to fund big science, step right up. Let talk.

  34. @Mark Mulkerin: Unfortunately, as things stand, the government frequently use your money to fund research that is open source right up to the point a company takes it over, patents or copyrights it, and charges for it to be licensed.

    ———————–

    Okay. A couple of things… first, this isn’t exactly true. Most research at major research institutions is not open source. It’s patented and proprietary, and those institutions make money on the patents. This is, to my mind, a bad thing. Public institutions should generate public information.

    Second, if a research project/algorithm/process/whatever is properly licensed as an open process, whether through creative commons, GPL, or some other mechanism, it cannot be “taken over” by a company and licensed differently.

    If, however, company A takes process P and adds their own stuff to it, their license on process Q does not stop company B from using process P to create process R.

    Think of the basic research as the basic twelve bar blues. Any company, institution, or individual can riff off it and make it their own, but the core of the music remains in the public domain. The purpose of federal dollars should be to expand the basic science and technology available to the entire society for fun and profit.

    Public domain science is a lot sexier than proprietary science at election time.

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