Ideas for fixing science, contn.
Shooting the bullshit with a friend over beer, we started talking about a couple of articles that came out recently, including this one about productivity and money and this one about doubling the NSF budget, among others.
My friend was saying it can be wasteful to spend too much on basic research.
I was arguing that lots of basic research has applications later, like GFP and RNAi. There are plenty of examples of initially esoteric findings that turned out to be incredibly useful.
We were saying how it's important to fund both a sizable chunk of applied science and a healthy chunk of purely basic research, but we're not exactly sure what the best ratios would be.
Then we were talking about how there's no incentive to get a lot of bang for your buck. I've written before about how the average Cell paper costs about a million dollars or more, when you add up salaries and expenses to do the amount of work that is expected for "a complete story". Somewhere along the line (and I saw Drugmonkey mentioned this not long ago), quality got overrun by quantity. Now it seems like the only way to get high impact papers is to have a lot of money to spend, and the only way to get more money is to get high impact papers.
And thus, a cycle of nastiness was born.
But hey, that's NIH. Maybe NSF is not so bad (yet)? Currently, the NSF budget doesn't really cost much money, relative to other government spending.
On the other hand, just pumping money into it isn't going to solve everything, and if the NIH doubling is an example, it's likely to create a whole buncha additional problems that NSF hasn't solved before.
I said again that I think the problem is partly how research careers select for people who are okay with not trying to predict the future too far in advance. We'd all go crazy if our experiments didn't always turn out like we expected them to. Instead, happy researchers are the ones who are okay with that kind of uncertainty. We make plans, but we don't feel too compelled to stick to them if they don't make sense.
However, if you're going to run a government funding agency, and that's going to affect workforce issues, you kinda hafta be the sorta person who likes a PLAN. You really have to think about the consequences of your plans when it's going to affect entire generations of trainees not being able to get jobs fifteen years from now.
I don't know what's going on with the people at the top of the funding agencies, but Jeremy Berg is doing some interesting things with analyzing the data that everyone else has ignored until now.
I find it very amusing that apparently no one bothered to do these kinds of analyses before, or if they did, they weren't allowed to release it publicly?
Now I want to see what Jeremy Berg et al. are going to do about it.
Are there going to be real changes, or is this just an academic exercise where we're still afraid of pissing off the richest people (and yes, that's also a reference to the Obama tax cut nonsense going on right now).
Anyway, we were saying how maybe the real problem is the same old shit about bootstrapping. You can't start a project with no money. Or, you can, but you might have a hard time finishing it and getting it published.
I've always argued that our current funding system places way too much emphasis on reputation and doesn't pay enough attention to who is asking the right questions (especially considering the rampant problems with students and postdocs ghostwriting their PIs grants). It's not a level playing field when you won't let Cinderella come to the dance.
It's no secret that I dislike the current system, where universities take overhead money out of our grants and divert it to god only knows where. And I think it's unfair that you have to be faculty in order to apply for money. Your only alternative is to start your own business, in which case you'll need a lot more money because you'll have zero infrastructure.
My friend was suggesting that there should be money for doing pilot experiments, which would get around this problem that established PIs can use money from other grants to bootstrap future grant applications.
And the evil ones can effectively block their postdocs from doing the same.
I think that pilot bootstrapping facilities & mini grants could be a great solution. I suggested that getting your PhD should be enough training, and then you could go into a pool of qualified applicants who propose ideas and how to test them. Those proposals would be reviewed double-blind. That would be the first round. Then if your proposal was chosen, you'd be given some limited amount of time and money to generate some critical preliminary results, and a chance to present them to compete for an actual grant.
I dunno, something like that.
Point being that, yes, experience would be evident, and it would still be an advantage, but you couldn't check out of the lab completely and still claim to be *doing research*, like some senior PIs. And it would give an opportunity for the creative young folks to get into the game without having to jump through decades of bureaucratic nonsense and political dues-paying.
Still not sure what to do about the university problem, though. It just seems like the current granting system consists of throwing a lot of money into a black hole. And it sounds as though, at least according to Jeremy Berg's data, the more money you throw, the less return you get.