Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Does government funding hold science back?

Jerry Stratton, October 28, 2015

The Mad Scientists’ Club: Cover for Bertrand R. Brinley’s “The Mad Scientists’ Club”, scholastic press version.; children; science

Mad scientists who work in an abandoned shed after school definitely need not apply.

I can’t be sure, because I don’t normally keep track of crackpot theories (not since high school, anyway), but I seem to recall that the idea that adult stem cells, which are abundant, could be used in place of embryonic stem cells was crackpot science back in the late nineties. I do remember that we were told that adult stem cells had practically no use. But when government funding for embryonic stem cells stopped, we suddenly learned that adult stem cells did have uses, and they were easier to get.

I am not saying that we don’t need embryonic stem cell research at all; only that the massive amount of government funding certainly seemed to hold stem cell research back.

The same thing happened with anti-virus medicines. In 1961 after realizing that the polio vaccine was based off of monkeys who had had SV40, a cancer-causing virus:

In 1960 Bernice Eddy, a government researcher, discovered that when she injected hamsters with the kidney mixture on which the vaccine was cultured, they developed tumors. Eddy’s superiors tried to keep the discovery quiet, but Eddy presented her data at a cancer conference in New York. She was eventually demoted, and lost her laboratory. The cancer-causing virus was soon isolated by other scientists and dubbed SV40, because it was the fortieth simian virus discovered. Alarm spread through the scientific community as researchers realized that nearly every dose of the vaccine had been contaminated. In 1961 federal health officials ordered vaccine manufacturers to screen for the virus and eliminate it from the vaccine. Worried about creating a panic, they kept the discovery of SV40 under wraps and never recalled existing stocks. For two more years millions of additional people were needlessly exposed—bringing the total to 98 million Americans from 1955 to 1963. But after a flurry of quick studies, health officials decided that the virus, thankfully, did not cause cancer in human beings.

After that the story of SV40 ceased to be anything more than a medical curiosity. Even though the virus became a widely used cancer-research tool, because it caused a variety of tumors so easily in laboratory animals, for the better part of four decades there was virtually no research on what SV40 might do to people.

It would have been very embarrassing to find out that the government had been forcing dangerous vaccinations, and so the government wasn’t about to fund such research, and researchers weren’t about to risk losing funding by asking to have such research funded.

How much longer did it take to discover that prions were the cause of mad cow disease, because researchers rely on government funding, and the government didn’t believe in Stanley Prusiner’s crackpot theory?

This is something Eisenhower warned against in his famous “military-industrial complex” farewell address. He didn’t just warn against the military-industrial complex. He warned against all sorts of cronyism, of government using its massive power to direct what had been the province of the private sector in America.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. — President Dwight D. Eisenhower (President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address)

Now you might respond that lack of funding doesn’t stop fringe scientists from researching fringe ideas, but I don’t think that’s true. That’s a binary analysis: fringe and not fringe, crazy and not crazy. But in nature, including human nature, most things come in gradations. You don’t have 100% crazy and 100% not crazy. You have 100% crazy, 90% crazy, and so on.

The thing is, when the government is throwing around tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars, you would have to be 100% crazy to forego that money. This means that government funding will divide research into completely crazy and completely what has worked in the past. And where “what has worked in the past” is not “what has given us interesting results” but rather “what has netted us a grant”. Avenues that tend to make government look bad—such as researching SV40—aren’t even considered. Avenues that seem crazy will also not be funded. And it’s not just that the government won’t fund them but that scientists will perfectly reasonably self-censor themselves into avenues that will be funded. If your grant proposal fails, that money goes to someone else. You often don’t get a chance to try again until the next funding cycle.

People who write grant proposals literally copy from previous successful grant proposals. When that much money is at stake, you don’t take chances on unlikely fringe theories.

…the goals of obtaining a grant and making a breakthrough discovery are increasingly at odds, warn Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and former director of the National Cancer Institute, in a highly publicized critique of U.S. biomedical research that was published in April 2014. Real breakthroughs entail unconventional thinking and require work that may repeatedly fail to meet expectations. These days, however, winning grants seems to require staying within the bounds of the known, the authors write. Today’s “hyper competition” for funding, they assert, encourages “conservative, short-term thinking in applicants, reviewers, and funders. The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas.”

But the result of this is that instead of a thousand researches in a thousand different directions, we end up with two directions: completely crazy, and completely conventional, with very little in between for unconventional but not completely crazy.

The result is likely to be a severe retardation of scientific progress in those areas where government funding abounds.

In response to The plexiglass highway: Government bureaucracies can cause anything to fail, even progress.

  1. Research capture ->