1. Report this comment

    Jim Woodgett said:

    While it is certainly true that social media (and mainstream media) are full of stories about doom and gloom (this sells better than sunshine and happiness) and funding for basically anything is cyclical with economic status, the current situation is not so easily dismissed as a trough, especially for basic science. There have been some fundamental changes to expectations of science such that return on investment and practical application are now written into many elements of funding assessment. Blame for this development can be laid partly at short-term thinking by politicians but researchers have also contributed by making promises that investments will deliver benefits. They will, but not in the manner sold. Increasingly, funders think they can select out and cherry pick the research most likely to yield returns. As a consequence, funding agencies have realigned their selection and scoring criteria to include aspects linked to socio-economic benefits, milestones and other measures of ROI that true basic science cannot and should not provide, since it is disingenuous. By definition, if such returns can be predicted, then was is being evaluated is not discovery/basic science. Instead, our predictions of ROI are based on historical analysis. We know that of 1000 new ideas, a few will lead to remarkable changes and advances. But we typically have no clue as to which of those 1000 best ideas will be winners at the time they are proposed. By incorporating the language of predictability of delivery in grant assessments, we are transitioning true basic science into translation or development. We are also doing society a disservice by glossing over the fact that research is high risk with no guarantees. It is only post facto that we can trace routes of innovation back to initial discovery. And when we do this, we often find serendipity, frustration and rejection accompany those initial findings.

    It is possible that we will come clean and defend discovery research for what it is such that it is recognized for all its foibles as the wellspring of new knowledge, but that has become so politically incorrect that it is more likely we will continue to hide it in our laboratory basements, conducted in the dark while derivative, incremental work is conducted under the administrative rules.

    There are also other changes at work including trends to “bigger” science, more expensive science, loss of buying power and abandonment of basic science support by charities. Young scientists are right to be worried about their future prospects and it’s about time we all stop making misleading promises in return for $$.

    1. Report this comment

      Scott Chimileski said:

      Hi Jim – thank you for your comment. I agree that there are unprecedented aspects of the current downtrend and this situation cannot be dismissed. We should aim to consider the issue from as many angles and through as many metrics as possible. Looking at a change in the expectations of science and how this alters the practical definition of basic research is a great idea.

      I think that the line between basic and applied research will continue to be somewhat fuzzy (but perhaps is becoming a whole lot fuzzier with more direct measures of ROI). Unanticipated advance in practical areas has always been an implicit justification for the funding of “curiosity-driven” science. For example, in part two of this series I discuss documents that led to the formation of the NSF in 1950. Even though we associate the NSF with basic research, at its very inception president Roosevelt suggested that “thousands of scientists should be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.” NASA and the DOE were also born out of practical or defense related concerns.

      So, as conducted through federal funding, it seems that discovery and application have gone hand in hand since day one. One might even argue that all forms of federal funding over time might be better placed into categories of “implicit/indirect” and “explicit/direct” applied science, versus “basic” and “applied.” Though curiosity is arguably a latent force behind all science, to really find research for pure discovery, not effected by any external influence, I think we have to return all the way to the gentlemen scientists (some of whom I also highlight in part two), or to hidden laboratory basements as you suggested.

      As a young scientist myself, of course I wish that science funding and jobs would go in no direction but up! My goal is to offer some balance through a positive outlook. Historical trends give us reason for alarm, and reason for optimism (but I think the latter has been underreported).