Everything's coming up science, or, it's a Goodyear to talk about policy

Three related things about science policy and its intersection with politics.

1. Richard Gordon, a co-author of the paper I blogged about this morning, has been emailing his paper to all comers, so I don’t think he’ll mind if I reproduce the nub of his argument here (I’ve taken out assorted attributions to lighten the text a bit):

If more people who are eligible applied, this would either require an increase in the total budget or a decrease in the amount per grant. But either way the country would gain in scientific productivity since more new ideas and discoveries would be pursued. We may get a rough estimate of the number of eligible NSERC applicants by combining the number of faculty members in mathematics, the physical sciences, engineering and applied sciences, agriculture and biological sciences, which came to approximately 9,000 in 2006 in Canada. Of these 9,000 potential grant applicants, only 3,258 applied to NSERC in 2006. If all of them were given baseline grants of $30,000 per year, the cost would be $270 million per year, or 11% of the Federal research budget. As the present NSERC budget for Discovery Grants is $318.4 million, not counting special programs, baseline grants for all is an achievable goal, and in fact could even be raised to $35,000 per year. We suggest that the best policy is to support all of the eligible faculty members, who ask for funds, with baseline grants. All of these people have passed hurdles of hiring, promotion, and tenure hearings. We claim that there are no effective criteria that will distinguish who will produce important and lasting research. Even the author of one elitist experiment in funding admitted that: “Outstanding ideas do not grow on trees, and at any one time, very few scientists would expect to be working on one. That would be true most of the time even for the best scientists at the most prestigious institutes anywhere. Nevertheless, any competent and determined researcher might expect to have an inspirational idea at least once during the course of a lifetime”.

That is the negative view. The positive view is that every scientist, given freedom from peer review at the conception stages of his or her ideas, may make a lasting contribution to humanity. If they are trained and employed to do so, why create impediments? We just waste our investment and trust in them. Furthermore, we have no tools to predict which of them will actually produce the breakthroughs. The mixed portfolio approach permits us to take advantage of the breakthroughs when they occur. Controls on appropriateness of expenditures would be achieved through standard university accounting procedures and a return to the one page summary of research proposed, with another one page summary of results, together with links to data, analysis, patents, and publications for those who are interested in the details. These could be publicly available and required on a Web site, as a condition of continued funding. This is more to keep a record of what was done than a means of control per se. The far greater control of quality of researchers is assured through university hiring, promotion, and tenure proceedings, whose scrutiny far exceeds that of peer review. The greater efficiency in use of grant funds and increased innovation with baseline funding could achieve the goals of the present Value for Money and Accountability Review.

The advantages of baseline grants are as follows:

1. In no other profession than science is one given a salary and space and asked to beg outsiders (who are not customers) for the means to do one’s work. This anomaly makes being a scientist unattractive to young people.

2. Administrative costs can be reduced or eliminated. Most universities already give token amounts of research funds to their scientists, so these internal accounts need only be supplemented, using administrative structures already in place. NSERC could retain the power to decide who qualifies to receive funding, which would keep the distribution of funds immune to local university politics and “taxation.”

3. Controls on expenditures, to make sure they are appropriate, are already in place through the purchasing departments of universities.

4. If we trust scientists, who are carefully selected already through the hurdles of hiring, promotion, and tenure, they will attain a degree of independence of thought from their peers that could lead to much greater innovation. Quality control is exercised in the products of their work, through the peer review system of scientific journals, and through the patent submission and evaluation system if the work reaches commercial value.

5. If the baseline grants are allowed to carry over from one fiscal year to the next, and scientists are allowed to pool their funds, ambitious projects could be carried off with the same degree of independence. “This freedom allows the researcher to respond to events—events that of course will arise unpredictably in a genuinely exploratory initiative—and [doubles] . . . the relative value of the funds”.

6. Patentable ideas can be kept secret until patent protection is obtained.

2. It turns out that 2,038 researchers have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the opposition parties, describing concerns about recent trends in federal science policy. None of those researchers thought to inform Inkless Wellls about their effort, but I found out about it anyway.

3. A bunch of high-powered researchers and university administrators are organizing a conference on science policy for Toronto this October. Again, they’re working hard to keep this information from falling into the wrong hands, but I found out about it anyway.

The Gordon and Poulin paper is simply interesting and quirky, and as I read its full text I’m learning all kinds of interesting things about research grants, which are useful whether I buy their proposals or not. the open letter and the conference are profoundly useful and wildly overdue. One of the first times I ever had a long conversation with my current boss — 15 years ago, my goodness — he said, “There are times when Ottawa talks to the country and times when the country talks to Ottawa.” For obvious reasons, this is turning into one of the latter times. Good.

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