August 11, 2005
Divergent Views on Science Policy
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Science Policy: General
One interesting characteristic about science policy is that it does not map neatly onto the stereotypical liberal-conservative Manichean worldview. To take just one example, two columns in the past month over at Tech Central Station, a web site run by folks who espouse a "faith in technology and free markets," show wildly divergent views on science policy.
In an essay from 15 July 2005, Sallie Baliunas makes the fanciful suggestion that public demands for relevance from government-supported research have lead to increasing fraud among scientists. She describes how once Richard Feynman was "freed of the impediment of relevance" he was then able to conduct novel research into theoretical physics and collect a Nobel Prize. But Baliunas does not seem to recognize that federal funding for nuclear physics in the twentieth century was motivated by a very practical objective, winning the Cold War. Without the Soviet Union, federal funding for nuclear physics would surely have been considerably less. Just look at the funding trend for this area in the post-Cold War era. She expresses concern that if scientists are asked to perform research with practical applications, it might "drive away Feynman-type thinkers" and also lead to research misconduct by scientists upset that they have not been given a blank check and no accountability.
A very different essay comes from Iain Murray, who writes,
"The distinction between basic science and applied science (and its development) is, at heart, an elitist and artificial one. It is based on a misunderstanding of the scientific dynamic that was set in policy stone by Vannevar Bush, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's top science adviser, during World War II. It relies on what is known as the "Linear Model" of science, which states that "basic research" develops a pool of knowledge from which "applied research" draws practical benefits, which are then developed into economic goods... Science's role in the economy, it appears, is mainly dependent on the technological portion -- the applied research and development -- of the model. Basic research contributes far less than the linear model suggests." Murray's conclusion could not be any more different from Baliunas' view: "When it comes to science policy, the utility of the science is what is important."
On the other side of the political spectrum there is similar incoherence about science policy. And this is a good thing. It reflects the fact that we are in a period of transition from a post-World War II science policy to its successor, and views on science policy have not yet gelled. The exact characteristics of science policy in the 21st century remain unclear, but we'll get there sooner with people like Baliunas and Murray, and their counterparts from other points on the ideological spectrum, engaging in public debate and discussion on what science policy ought to look like. And without a doubt the issues of practical relevance, federal and private funding and, yes, the politicization of science ought to be at the core of any such dialogue.
For more on this subject see this paper:
Pielke, Jr., R.A., and R. Byerly, Jr., 1998: Beyond Basic and Applied. Physics Today, 51(2), 42-46. (PDF)Posted on August 11, 2005 07:36 AM
I see the success of science as resulting from minimizing bias in the process of observation and data collection as much as possible. It requires transparency, and peer review by people of different agendas. You'd want to reduce conflicts of interests as much as possible.
You're right - Feynman's funding was motivated by creating a bomb. But the incentive was to get accurate results because the bomb had to work. When it becomes a problem is when funding is given to get a certain result - this is why industry science is so good at technology (producing something to sell) and so bad at determining if it's own products are safe. The incentive is to only produce research that says they are doing no harm (like the American Petroleum Institute's recent shopping for research that would show Benzene is safe).
Science is under attack in the areas where it does not benefit industry (utilitarian, if you prefer). Evolution, health, safey, issues related to environment, these are where the debate will focus, I think. There is very little incentive to produce research that goes against industry/religious interests. So how do you set up a system that does not encourage particular results, but just wants to know?
I know this goes against current thinking, but I still think it's federal grants based on merit. Sure, there are always corruption or pressure brought to bear. But look at PBS: the argument against its existence has been that the free market would create documentaries of equal quality on Discover and the Learning Channel.
Look at those channels now. The Learning Channel is almost exclusively "World's Scariest Police Videos", and Discover is mostly aliens, tornadoes and "When Animals Attack". It's almost impossible to find a documentary on Egypt that isn't at least half devoted to the mummy's curse or alien pyramid builders. There are some shows for those still clinging to their belief that the Enlightenment is not over, but none as good as Nova. And although you can point out bad shows on PBS, just as you can find good shows on cable, PBS, pound for pound, puts out better quality science shows than you'll find anywhere else. Something is working, although I have no idea why.
So yes, you can play the same game with science grants, pointing to conflicts of interest, but for some reason that science has done a better job in non-utilitarian areas than industry has. I have no doubt the free market will do a better job of building space ships that NASA, but I don't think they'll ever devote much time to finding life on Mars or the Grand Unified Theory unless they see a utilitarian application.
Posted by: Dylan Otto Krider at August 11, 2005 12:48 PM
Dylan- Thanks for these comments. The problem with this line of argument is that it assumes some "golden age" when government science was given money and a mandate to follow curiousity whereever it may lead. The reality is much more complex, and any such "golden age" may be as much myth as reality. At one level research support has also been practically oriented, at least from the perspective of funders. See, e.g., Pasteur's Quadrant by Donald Stokes (1998).
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at August 11, 2005 11:30 PM
I'm not sure I argue a Golden Age. I simply point to examples that I think illustrate how grants appear to work better than the market today. It's a case study.
I'll give you another example. The visitor's center for Johnson Space Center here in Houston used to have a few space suits and a tour of Mission Control. They didn't have much interest in keeping it up so they privatized it. They added a food court, a playground, and then they did an exhibit on Roswell with the UFO museum. That's right, the vistitor's center of NASA was pimping a conspiracy theory that implicates them as one of the bad actors. Then, to add insult to injury, they had a crop circle exhibit that had blow ups of fake news stories to pump up the idea that they were "real". The scientific view was not presented. Does that assume a Golden Age? I don't know. I think it says market forces are not the best pursuers of truth. The one set up with government money was sparse, but far more accurate.
I guess I do think the integrity of science could be on the decline, so I guess any time you argue that we are doing anything other than progressing, that suggests a "Golden Age". I thought I was fairly clear about recognizing imperfections in any system.
Posted by: Dylan Otto Krider at August 11, 2005 11:50 PM
Wow! Could the typeface for the comments be any smaller? I'm guessing something like a 40" monitor would put this in range of my older eyes....
Posted by: serial catowner at August 12, 2005 06:59 AM