Public funding of science research
I received my monthly newsletter from the American Society for Cell Biology, one of a few professional societies that I belong to. I was struck by a sidebar piece in ASCB President Sandra Schmid’s comments to the society this month. She was reporting on a recent visit to Capitol Hill that several ASCB officers made recently to speak with members of Congress. One congressional staffer
…expressed concern about “redundancy” of NIH-funded research…
This comment stated on behalf of one of our elected officials is alarming to me, and I think underlies a serious misunderstanding of how science works, which in turn is going to accelerate the already alarming diminishment in public funding of basic and applied research in the United States. The staffer from Rep. Duncan Hunter’s office (San Diego, CA) is apparently concerned that many research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health are addressing the same questions, and feels that NIH funding of research is wasteful in this regard.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the correct answer to scientific questions before the work is done. We can make educated guesses, but until the experiment is actually carried out, we won’t know if our hypothesis is supported or refuted until after the data is collected and analyzed. This is why it is important for there to be transparency in process and funding of science, and to ensure that results with promise for the betterment of society can be replicated for confirmation.
The method of disbursement of NIH research funding accomplishes this aim; a panel of peer researchers examine a proposal for feasibility and benefit, and the most likely to succeed proposals are funded. Contrary to what I suspect most of the general public might think, a very small proportion of researcher-submitted proposals to the NIH actually become funded and end up with any money going to a laboratory. It’s not that they are bad proposals with a low probability of success and little benefit; it’s that the amount of money to fund them is extremely limited.
So what about the perception that there is funded research that is “redundant”? Progress in science is accomplished in a collaborative and competitive atmosphere. Large, intractable problems become easier to solve when many investigators work on them, and better answers are found when different labs are able to examine the results of each other. This unfortunately gives the superficial impression in the end that they are all working on the same problem, and getting the same results: why would anyone want to pay for it twice? We are in fact not paying for the same results twice; we are using the collaborative process to get at the answer more quickly and more efficiently.
We are experiencing a time marked by incredible advances in medicine. A diagnosis of AIDS has gone from a death sentence 20 years ago, to a condition that can be controlled with medication for an extended period of time, and this has been accomplished solely by basic biomedical research, and much of it by laboratories here. The United States has historically been a leader in with basic and applied research, but recent budgets for the NIH have been stagnant at best and will be cut this year. And that doesn’t bode well for the future.