What is Science? Part I: Money
Here at Skepchick we receive many inquiries about this topic and others encompassing how, why, where, etc. I don’t think the answer is necessarily the same to anyone. As a post-doctoral researcher at a university, it means something different to me compared to others. Many in the Skepchick audience are familiar with the academic research process, but we thought it would be fun to give a little refresher course. This is going to be the first of a few installments about the academic research process.
Recently, I was speaking to middle school students asking them what they associate with chemistry research. I was anticipating an answer such as “You get to blow stuff up.” To my surprise, a 7th grade girl, in my first class of the day, replied “Money.” After class the teacher explained to me that her parents are both scientists, alas, the whole thing made sense. However, this 7th grade girl clearly has more insight into research than most as money is an essential part of the discussion.
Science, similar to most other things in life, is (unfortunately) very dependent on money. Grants from national institutes or foundations is how a large portion of science is funded at universities or national laboratories. Naturally, science is also done in industry that is usually privately funded. Mostly tax payers are responsible for shelling out the cash necessary for scientific research to be accomplished. However, according to some recent polls I saw from Research America this is a widely accepted way to spend tax money. What politician is going to come out with the platform to stop looking for a cancer cure? It is hard for me to gauge whether or not this sentiment is international, but for many countries I would imagine an analogous mind set.
How does one get money to do science? The simple answer is they write grants. People come up with their own ideas that will coincide with the interests of the organization giving away the money. Simple enough. Grants generally go through an extremely critical peer review process. Many funding institutions put a scoring system in place to wade through the large number of proposals where the percentage funded depends heavily on that particular funding agency.
Once a grant is funded, where does the money go? The money mostly goes to university overhead (usually at least 50%), equipment, and salaries of researchers. Once the money is allocated that is when the research finally begins. However, it isn’t entirely uncommon to begin a research project before the funding comes through to show experience and feasibility to complete the investigation proposed on the grant application.
Every now and then the media or a politician gets a hold of a research paper or grant that is usually legitimately funded research with important aims and blows it out of proportion because they don’t understand the details behind it. Recently this story came out (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/may/26/tax-dollars-shrimp-treadmills-jell-o-wrestling/)
Now, I am unable to tell what their intentions are, but I think it is important to trust the system in place. As someone who realizes how difficult it is to receive research funding, the process is generally good. I am sure there could be many improvements, but overall it works reasonably well. The best ideas are usually the ones that receive funding.
Following this piece I am going to do others explaining the scientific process. Particularly discussing personnel, differences amongst research facilities, and the publication process. Please let me know if there is another aspect of science you are curious about and hopefully we can tackle the issue.