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Science funding and political ideology

Mark Palko points to this news article by Jeffrey Mervis entitled, “Rand Paul takes a poke at U.S. peer-review panels”:

Paul made his case for the bill yesterday as chairperson of a Senate panel with oversight over federal spending. The hearing, titled “Broken Beakers: Federal Support for Research,” was a platform for Paul’s claim that there’s a lot of “silly research” the government has no business funding. . . .

Two of the witnesses—Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Rebecca Cunningham of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor—were generally supportive of the status quo, although Nosek emphasized the importance of replicating findings to maximize federal investments. The third witness, Terence Kealey of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., asserted that there’s no evidence that publicly funded research makes any contribution to economic development.

Palko places this in the context of headline-grabbing politicians such as William Proxmire (Democrat) and John McCain (Republican) egged on by crowd-pleasing journalists such as Maureen Dowd and Howard Kurtz:

Of course, we have no way of knowing how effective these programs are, but questions of effectiveness are notably absent from McCain/Dowd’s piece. Instead it functions solely on the level of mocking the stated purposes of the projects, which brings us to one of the most interesting and for me, damning, aspects of the list: the preponderance of agricultural research.

You could make a damned good case for agricultural research having had a bigger impact on the world and its economy over the past fifty years than research in any other field. That research continues to pay extraordinary dividends both in new production and in the control of pest and diseases. It also helps us address the substantial environmental issues that have come with industrial agriculture.

As I said before, this earmark coverage with an emphasis on agriculture is a recurring event. I remember Howard Kurtz getting all giggly over earmarks for research on dealing with waste from pig farms about ten years ago and I’ve lost count of the examples since then. . . .

But this new effort by Sen. Paul and others seems to be coming from a different direction.

Part of the story, I think, is that a lot of the research funding goes directly to scientists, who are disproportionately liberal Democrats, compared to the general population. So I could see how a conservative Republican could say: Hey, why are we giving money to these people.

As a scientist who does a lot of government-funded research that is put to use by business, I think liberals, moderates, and conservatives should all support government science funding without worrying about the private political views of its recipients. Yes, this view is in my interest, but it’s also what I feel: Science is a public good in so many ways. But the point is that, for some conservatives, there’s a real tradeoff here in that money is going for useful things but it’s going to people with political views they don’t like.

I guess one could draw an analogy to liberals’ perspectives on military funding. If you’re a liberal Democrat and you support military spending, you have to accept that a lot of this money is going to conservative Republicans.

I say all this not in any attempt to discredit the proposals of Sen. Paul or others—these ideas should be evaluated on their merits—but just to look at these debates from a somewhat different political perspective here. When I talk about scientists being disproportionately liberal Democrats, I’m not talking about postmodernists in the Department of Literary Theory; I’m talking about chemists, physicists, biologists, etc.

84 Comments

  1. Martha (Smith) says:

    “The third witness, Terence Kealey of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., asserted that there’s no evidence that publicly funded research makes any contribution to economic development.”

    Economic development isn’t everything — I’d say that publicly funding research to improve the general health, welfare, and well-being of the nation’s citizens is an important function of government.

    • Andrew says:

      Martha:

      Yes, but I suppose Kealey’d make the argument that the general health etc would be even more improved from the private funding that would’ve been done from the money that people would’ve had, if they’d not been taxed to pay for the government funding. It’s hard to know.

      Regarding Kealey’s original point that there’s no evidence etc.: I haven’t looked at the data myself so I can’t say, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were no direct evidence that publicly funded research makes a contribution to economic development. The economy is so huge and it varies so much from year to year, that any simple causal analysis, for example a regression of economic development on government spending, maybe with some differencing here or there, would probably not have enough power to detect any aggregate effects. One could make an argument based on particular examples (Darpa and the internet, Stan, Julia, etc.) but I think it would be difficult to extract signal from the aggregate data. The issue is that it would be hard to demonstrate the effectiveness of almost any program, public or private, based on an aggregate analysis of the economy. But that doesn’t mean that all programs are a bad idea.

        • Andrew says:

          Jrc:

          Yes, that makes sense. That’s my point, that if you want to make the argument that a particular policy increases economic growth, or fights crime, or increases life expectancy, etc., you’ll have to make the argument based on the specifics, not by doing an aggregate regression. I don’t actually know the basis of Kealey’s claim that there’s no evidence that publicly funded research makes any contribution to economic development, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this came from an aggregate regression, which I think is too crude a tool to answer this sort of question.

          • jrkrideau says:

            I don’t actually know the basis of Kealey’s claim that there’s no evidence that publicly funded research

            Since he is with the Cato Institute, I would suggest that he used a similar research procedure as that of the famous Irish banker during the 2008 financial crisis “Pulled it out ….”.

        • It’s honestly silly this “there’s no evidence” stuff. I’m going to interpret that as “doing some regression we couldn’t reject the null of 0 in some coefficient” and Andrew’s right, the aggregation just makes that meaningless. It’s entirely possible for example that while there are quite a few good things that come out of research, there are plenty of wastes of resources that tend to balance out, and that there could even be a feedback effect, when there is growth, we throw more money into research, most of which is in fact wasted, but when there’s not growth we retract research funding and maybe that reduces the waste… etc. Feedback would explain a lot.

          To me the thing about Rand Paul’s proposal is that I agree with the idea that we should consider the societal goals, and we should allocate funds based on benefit to the people whose money we’re spending. Currently far too much of the say in what gets funded is scientific in-groups perpetuating their in-ness. Like for example we should probably do a lot MORE agriculture and environment research and maybe a lot less of funding Doctors to do bio-medical research as they are often not very good researchers (it’s hard to be both a clinician and an effective researcher, something has to give…)

      • I am with Andrew. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were insufficient evidence of publicly funded research making contribution to economic development. But I’m sure that if there was direct evidence from economics research it would be subject to question to its value as measure & guide for economic policies development. In my own forays into ‘debt’ & ‘debt ceiling, I was puzzled by findings. I thought Ziliak has clarified some of my own speculations.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      This report https://admlc.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/admlc_final_report_v1-0.pdf discusses some areas where public support of research is important — and where research is not likely to find much support from private sources.

    • Robin Morris says:

      Google is a direct result of publicly funded research (NSF digital libraries initiative). It think it would be hard to argue that Google has made no contribution to economic development.

  2. I like Rand Paul’s suggestion to have non-scientists/academics on the panels. One reason for this is that I was almost as disappointed with Michèle Lamont’s How Professors Think as Fred Inglis was. Like him, I was also disappointed with how professors apparently actually think.

    “According to this plodding tour … and the title notwithstanding, the academic world is incurious, tired and trivial-minded, loose as to judgment, lax as to thought, kindly and liberal-minded, wanting to go home,” says Inglis. That’s of course not exactly true, but what was disappointing was that a very established Harvard professor could write a book that really does describe the members of funding panels in this way without feeling any embarrassment about it. (It’s a bit like that infamous blogpost by Brian Wansink that started pizzagate.)

    I think a non-academic perspective on funding decisions might shake academics out of their complacency and actually get them to think seriously about what they spending tax dollars to study. I don’t think “civilians” necessarily need to have a say, i.e., a vote on NSF panels. It’s the presence of the layperson that matters. I think experts make better decisions while they’re being watched by laypeople than when they are only watching each other.

    • Kyle MacDonald says:

      That’s a good final point. It is also important not to homogenize non-(academic scientists). When I think “layperson on an NSF panel”, the image in my head is a frankly embarrassing hillbilly caricature in a room with a bunch of tweedbound New Yorker cartoons. The suggested stereotypes in this discussion (at least, suggested to me) are, on the one hand, irresponsible, head-in-the-clouds egghead types, and on the other hand, people who use multisyllable words only with difficulty and are concerned almost exclusively with paying as little tax as possible. This knee-jerk interpretation (in which I suspect I’m not alone) should be resisted. There are plenty of well-educated people who do not work in academia but are broadly open to the idea that academic work could be valuable, and would be able and willing to make informed contributions to decisions about funding.

      • Exactly right. There is no simple correspondence between the set of intelligent people and the set of academics. Obviously, you only want intelligent people on the funding panels. But you’re not guaranteed to accomplish this by pulling them only from the ranks of academia.

      • Ayse Tezcan says:

        i agree there are many well-educated and wise people who are not in academia, and whose input would be valuable to the advancement of science; on the other hand, there are those who think that ‘fruit fly’ studies are a waste of public money!! i would hope that once people are tasked with being in these panels, they would do due diligence to inform themselves and be objective – which is not always the case.

        • It’s important not to underestimate the persuasive talents of scientists. There is no reason to think that someone who thinks fruit fly studies are a waste of resource going into a panel will continue to hold that view after being exposed to the arguments of the experts on that panel. It’s not that they have inform themselves, it’s that they have to be open being informed by their fellow panelists. That’s certainly something to keep in mind when choosing people for the panel. But it’s also important to remember that science really is valuable, and it can, in fact, be shown to be valuable to a reasonably intelligent layperson who is willing to listen. The future of science doesn’t depend on keeping laypeople from knowing what scientists are doing. It just depends on making a good case for letting them continue doing it.

        • Alex Gamma says:

          Ayse,

          “…there are those who think that ‘fruit fly’ studies are a waste of public money!!”

          Your particular choice of example is telling, and quite ironic to me. Presumably, you value fruit fly research for its insights into genetics. But from where I stand, it’s pretty clear that genetics has unjustifiably dominated biomedical research for decades, and yet has failed expectations persistently. One major reason for this is the field’s uncritical adoption of the idea that genes are or contain build instructions for an organism, a view that is almost universally rejected by those who have examined it. Unfortunately, geneticists have not been interested in those findings and so the view is still prevalent today and forms the continuing foundation of a line of research from the HGP, to gene therapy research, and to today’s personalized/precision medicine. The result is a ton of research that will predictably fail and therefore, yes, a waste of public money. Fruit fly research is certainly a part of this.

          But genes are just ordinary molecules and they don’t contain any special kind of knowledge of the body.

          • Anoneuoid says:

            This sounds like an interesting perspective. Anywhere to read more from this angle?

          • Ayse Tezcan says:

            Firstly, the field’s uncritical adoption of the idea that genes are or contain build instructions for an organism, a view that is almost universally rejected by those who have examined it. Do you mean they don’t code for proteins that perform a function in biological systems? If so, can you give me some references to this assertion? I may need to brush up on my fundamentals. :) Or do you mean people thought they were the instructions for building the entire organism? I had not heard that one.

            Considering how much we learned about the functions of genes and identified mutations that lead to certain conditions from these investigations, your generalization might be a bit extreme. Without getting into bioethics conversation (not because it is not important because it is important and this is not the topic here), I would say if we can fix the mutation for sickle cell anemia or childhood leukemia or etc. one day, I would say it is worth every penny of the investment. Genes may be ordinary strings of bases but they have great implications. We now even do better epidemiological outbreak investigation thanks to the genome studies. We could and do investigate genome using other organisms, fruit fly was just one of many convenient ones.

            btw will predictably fail is there a prediction for that? i wasn’t aware of that review.

            • Martha (Smith) says:

              “the idea that genes are or contain build instructions for an organism, a view that is almost universally rejected by those who have examined it. Do you mean they don’t code for proteins that perform a function in biological systems?”

              I didn’t realize anyone still believed that “genes contain build instructions for an organism” But my understanding is that they contain “code” for proteins (which I suppose might or might not perform a function)

              “Considering how much we learned about the functions of genes and identified mutations that lead to certain conditions from these investigations, your generalization might be a bit extreme.”

              My understanding is that mutations have been identified that *are associated with* certain conditions (your statement seems too strong to me!)

              But also, there are “epigenetic” effects which, if I understand correctly, involve parts of what used to be called “junk DNA”.

              • Ayse Tezcan says:

                Martha:

                We agree; that’s my understanding of the role of the genes, too. I was just asking for clarification whether that’s what Alex meant; perhaps, I am missing some knowledge.

                We do know mutations in the genome that lead to certain conditions; for example, a TATC insertion on chromosome 15 results in an altered reading frame for the HEXA gene and Tay-Sachs disorder. There are disorders that involve single gene but their penetrance differs. The phenotypic expression might be influenced by microenvironment, accessibility of methylation sites, and many other factors that some we know and some still don’t know.

                The epigenome is still a part of the genome; hence, I don’t know where my statement was too strong – I was not generalizing to genes but just stating that we did identify mutations through these genome studies.

                I believe the confusion is coming from the use of terminology. In my original comment, I never referred to the genes, only to fruit flies, from which we did learn a great deal about the functions of genes. Deciphering the coding and non-coding parts of the genome and their role in transcription and translation is a completely different subject and does not refute the importance of the knowledge that was learned from fruit flies or any other organism.

                A part of the problem is under scarce resources, deciding what we prioritize to fund with the taxpayer dollars. Perhaps the expertise and vision of the head of funding agency do have an effect on what gets funded and we end up with a disproportionate amount of money is distributed to one specific area of investigation. I know there is a great grief among researchers in non-genomic fields about this disproportionate funding. In that sense, public involvement might have a value.

                Thanks for your comment…

              • Ayse Tezcan says:

                I know there is a great grief among researchers in non-genomic fields about this disproportionate funding. I did not complete this sentence: “….. a great grief among researchers in non-genomic fields about over funding of genomic research.”

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                A.T. said: “I don’t know where my statement was too strong”

                Here’s a quote from you that I have abbreviated and added emphasis to try to highlight what I was referring to:

                “Considering how much we … identified mutations that *lead to* certain conditions from these investigations…”

                I responded with “My understanding is that mutations have been identified that *are associated with* certain conditions”

                You replied, “We do know mutations in the genome that lead to certain conditions; for example, a TATC insertion on chromosome 15 results in an altered reading frame for the HEXA gene and Tay-Sachs disorder. There are disorders that involve single gene but their penetrance differs. The phenotypic expression might be influenced by microenvironment, accessibility of methylation sites, and many other factors that some we know and some still don’t know.”

                I saw your original statement as being too strong in the following (interrelated) ways:

                1) “How much we have …” (Maybe this is a matter of perspective; for researchers something may see like great progress, while from a bigger perspective it seems like just a beginning)

                2) Yes, there are a few instances where the evidence is pretty strong that a certain gene (or other part of the genome) does “lead to” some high degree of occurrence of a certain disorder, but my understanding is that there are also a lot of cases where a gene has been identified as “linked to” a disorder, but no clear causal pathway has been identified.

                3) you omitted the type of qualifying statement you supplied in your response to my statement.

                I hope this clarifies at least somewhat what I was referring to.

            • Alex Gamma says:

              Ayse (and Martha):

              – “Do you mean they don’t code for proteins that perform a function in biological systems? If so, can you give me some references to this assertion?”

              The question is what you mean by genes coding for proteins: if you mean genes do something special (that other molecules can’t) like instructing other molecules to build specific proteins, then there’s no reason to believe that. If you simply mean that (some) genes are molecular templates which cells use to build proteins, then yes, but that doesn’t make them special. In general, the coding-metaphor is more misleading than helpful.

              A paper addressing this question directly is
              Neumann-Held EM. Genes – Causes – Codes: Deciphering DNA’s Ontological Privilege. In: Neumann-Held EM, Rehmann-Sutter C, editors. Genes in Development Re-reading the Molecular Paradigm. Durham: Duke University Press; 2006. pp. 238–71.

              – “Or do you mean people thought they were the instructions for building the entire organism? I had not heard that one.”

              Yes, that’s the conception that – explicitly or implicitly – is behind much of the enormous significance given to genetic research – that genes, in one way or the other, contain instructions, specifications, a blueprint, a computer-like program, a recipe, an operating manual, a history book about the human species and about human traits, including our susceptibilities to various diseases.

              The reference list in my post above will give you plenty of material supporting that notion. But you can start by simply asking yourself why the sequencing the human genome was widely hailed as a revolution for our understanding and treatment of human disease; what the expectations for the boom of gene-therapy research in the 90s were, and why scientists today expect another revolution from a primarily genomics-based personalized medicine.

              – “Considering how much we learned about the functions of genes and identified mutations that lead to certain conditions…”

              Yes, we’ve learnt much about mendelian, monogenic disorders. These are real. They are also mostly rare. I’m not denying that. On the other hand, there is the bulk of more common, more complex disorders (heart-disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity…) for which a predominantly genetic approach is simply not warranted (because genes simply do not contain the majority of risk for them). If you take a sober look around at both the findings of genetic studies and also the actual contribution to treatment of such common diseases, you’ll see how this is borne out: GWAS repeatedly finding only tiny risk fractions explained by genes, useful genetic tests being rare exceptions, truly genetically-based treatments basically zero. And still, large genetics projects continue to be funded and gobbling away the big money, and ever new reasons/excuses are being made up for why we just need *more* of the same, and then we’ll finally be successful (the latest iteration being that “big enough data” and some clever algorithms will somehow extract genetics-basec cures without much human input).

              – “Genes may be ordinary strings of bases but they have great implications.”

              That’s what everybody believes. In a public discussion, I once asked a panel of three geneticists what it actually was that made genes so special, that made them capable (according to their own views) of determining human traits. The response was several seconds of baffled silence. And the responses that finally followed were merely re-emphasizing that geneticists *believed* that genes contain the information for development. No one was able to give a cogent reason for that view. In my experience, that’s pretty representative. Geneticists, like everyone else, have just sucked up that view from culture and later from their scientific teachers, and have internalized it as a truth that becomes so ingrained that they never even perceive it as something that *could” be questioned.

              – “will predictably fail”
              By that I meant that more genetic research into the more prevalent, complex diseases will predictably NOT lead to a gene-based understanding or treatment, again, because these diseases are massively multi-causal and because genes are just a tiny part of their etiology.

              By the way, it’s important to realize that much of this information-based genetic determinism (because that’s what it ultimately is) is existing on the level of unreflected assumptions and unexamined language And that it continues to have effects even if researchers, when pressed, explicitly and vehemently reject genetic determinism.

              – “I believe the confusion is coming from the use of terminology. In my original comment, I never referred to the genes, only to fruit flies, from which we did learn a great deal about the functions of genes.”

              My considerations apply to the extent that fruit fly research is an example of genetic research. (That’s why I initially stated my assumption: “Presumably, you value fruit fly research for its insights into genetics.”)

              Remember, this is not about saying that genetic research is useless. We do have genes, they do play a role in development and heredity, so we should study them. The real issue is the relative importance given to different lines of research, and here I say genetics has been vastly over-dominant. More specifically, I’m saying if science had worked properly it would have realized decades ago that the information methaphor for genes is built on sand and that genes do not play privileged causal roles in development. In an ideal world, that would have lead to much more humble and realistic research projects, and left much more room for approaches studying the vast complement of non-genetic influences on the human development of diseases ands other traits.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Alex,

                Thank you for supplying more details than I was able to provide.

              • Ayse Tezcan says:

                Alex:

                Thanks for taking time to respond at such great length.

                It seems like we don’t disagree on any of these concepts and semantics seems to get in the way. I gave the fruit fly example because of the familiarity not because I assert genetic determinism, which is not something I have ever advocated. Your final paragraph is pretty much in line with I eluded to in the last paragraph of my last comment. I am acutely aware of the proportionality of funding distribution. The drivers of this hype and direction would require a dedicated discussion of its own.

          • Terry says:

            But genes are just ordinary molecules and they don’t contain any special kind of knowledge of the body.

            If genes don’t contain any special kind of knowledge of the body, why does frog DNA produce a frog while camel DNA produces a camel?

            Does your point hinge on the adjective “special”?

            You aren’t saying that genes contain NO knowledge of the body, are you? You’re just saying they don’t contain “special” knowledge of the body, right?

            If so, so what? As long as genes contain SOME knowledge about the body, and as long as that knowledge is an important part of producing a frog or a camel, why should we care that the knowledge is not “special”?

          • Terry says:

            I also don’t understand your point about genetic research being wasteful because very little disease can be linked to disease. I agree with this proposition, but I don’t see what it has do with the information content of genes. I don’t see the logical connection.

            Based on evolution, my strong priors are that there should be very little linkage of disease to genes because any such linkage would be maladaptive and disappear over time. (Generally speaking of course. Genes are complex and there must be exceptions. But, a bad gene that did nothing but cause disease would quickly die out.)

            • Alex Gamma says:

              “If genes don’t contain any special kind of knowledge of the body, why does frog DNA produce a frog while camel DNA produces a camel?”

              DNA does not “produce” organisms. A plethora of different causes produce organisms. If you’re asking about what makes the difference between whether a frog or a camel is produced, I don’t think anybody knows the full answer. Differences in DNA may well be important. However, the question I’m addressing is about the developmental role of DNA, and that is *not* a question about the causes of *differences* in phenotypes, but a question about the causes of phenotypes themselves.

              What’s important about genes not having “special powers” in development is that if people think they do (because they believe that genes are instructions), they will invest far more resources into genetic research than is justified. That is exactly the situation we’ve been having for decades.

              • Terry says:

                DNA does not “produce” organisms. A plethora of different causes produce organisms. If you’re asking about what makes the difference between whether a frog or a camel is produced, I don’t think anybody knows the full answer. Differences in DNA may well be important.

                Really?

                I asked a simple question about why frog DNA produces frogs and camel DNA produces camels, and you can’t answer that question? Instead you quibble about the exact meaning of “produce”? (Did you think I was unaware that other factors are involved in the production of a frog?) Surely you understand what I am getting at.

                You grudgingly admit that “differences in DNA may well be important”. Really? Frog DNA “may” be important in the production of a frog? You aren’t reasonably confident of that? You think there is a real possibility that frog DNA is unimportant in the production of a frog? Has anyone ever observed frogs being produced without frog DNA? Are there documented cases of camels being produced with frog DNA and without camel DNA?

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Terry,
                Your response to Alex seems extreme. Alex can’t read your (or anyone else’s) mind. His response seemed reasonable to me. (Before reading his response, I was thinking of responding, “If you put some frog DNA in a petri dish and observe it, do you really think that eventually you’ll see a frog there?)

              • Terry says:

                I took a look at the first paper you cite above by Griffiths. He seems to do a good job of demolishing the naive view of DNA as a perfect and complete specification of the final organism. His points about the error of thinking that DNA is “information” and therefore fundamentally different sound interesting as well. When talking about genetics it is easy to slip into teleological language.

                So ok, other factors are involved in the production of a frog. And some of those other factors are important and everything is pretty complex. And it would be ignorant to focus all research on DNA and neglect all other factors.

                No problem. This is epigenetics, right?

                But, how far does that take you? Some people who are big on epigenetics seem to be eager to take this much, much further. Indeed, they seem to want to slide, unnoticed, from “DNA is not everything”, to “DNA is nothing or trivial”. Sometimes they seem to be motivated by the desire to avoid unpleasant consequences from admitting that genetic inheritance is important, i.e., they seem to be engaging in motivated reasoning.

                If that is not what is going on, why is it so hard for some people to admit that DNA appears to be important and heritable?

              • Terry says:

                Martha:

                I just don’t understand why Alex is so reluctant to agree that DNA is important.

                If he had started his post with “Yes, DNA is obviously important, but it is only one factor among many and not qualitatively different from some others”, I would have had no problem with his post. I thought the frog/camel example was a simple way to get agreement on that point.

              • Terry says:

                Alex:

                Sorry about the aggressive tone. I slip too easily into that tone.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Terry: Re “If he had started his post with “Yes, DNA is obviously important, but it is only one factor among many and not qualitatively different from some others”, I would have had no problem with his post. I thought the frog/camel example was a simple way to get agreement on that point.”

                I find it strange that you were thinking in terms of “getting agreement”. If I were in your situation, I would have said something like, “Could you please explain how you see the role of DNA?”

              • Terry says:

                Martha:

                I find it strange that you were thinking in terms of “getting agreement”. If I were in your situation, I would have said something like, “Could you please explain how you see the role of DNA?”

                Let me explain my perspective in a jumbled fashion:

                1. I had heard of epigenetics, but did not understood it well. Sometimes, it is claimed that it discredits genetic determinism and so discredits heritability. These assertions have always struck me as “slippery”.

                2. Alex’s post seemed like an opportunity to interrogate epigenetics. I, like Ayse, was struck by the strength of some of Alex’s assertions, so I wanted to see if we could start by agreeing that genes are important. The frog/camel example seemed like a simple way to do that.

                3. I was surprised that Alex seemed to resist this basic agreement, and his response struck me as slippery. A natural way to bring this out is with mockery of the resistance to agree to what seems to be simple, obvious facts. (Leaving aside the social acceptability of such a tone.) Such slipperiness makes me suspect that the importance of epigenetics is being inflated.

                4. This seems to be supported by the sites Alex very helpfully provides. The Sarkar 1996 paper is especially succinct. Yes, biology has evolved from the simple, deterministic notion that genes rigidly encode for the final organism, and we need to realize that our use of words like “coding” and “produce” can be misleading, and things are more complicated than a simple model of genes as rote instructions. But, Sarkar’s arguments don’t put much of a dent in the ordinary schmoe’s crude conception of DNA. They certainly don’t support the notion that DNA is unimportant, and I don’t see the point of casually sneering at DNA as a nothing-special molecule. Until someone can produce a camel from frog DNA, I will continue to believe that DNA’s importance is pretty obvious.

                5. I also don’t see the relevance to the issue at hand of research funding. There is a much more obvious reason for the failure of research to find genetic bases for a large number of diseases: killer genes don’t persist in the gene pool because they are killer genes.

                6. What a great blog. Come for the statistics, stay for the obscure discussions of genetic theory.

                Cites:
                Sarkar S. Decoding“ Coding”: Information and DNA. Bioscience. 1996;4(1):857–64.
                https://www.dropbox.com/s/fhmdj8977zf6dr0/Sarkar_1996_Decoding%20Coding%20Information%20and%20DNA.pdf?dl=0

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Terry — To respond to some of your points:

                “1. I had heard of epigenetics, but did not understood it well. Sometimes, it is claimed that it discredits genetic determinism and so discredits heritability.”

                “Genetic determinism” sounds pretty dubious to me (as do most claims of “determinism” in complex situations). “Heritability” is a concept that can mean different things to different people.

                “These assertions have always struck me as “slippery”.” I don’t really know what you mean by a “slippery” assertion. I can’t help but wonder if you see things in certain terms whereas I see them in uncertain terms.

                “2. Alex’s post seemed like an opportunity to interrogate epigenetics. I, like Ayse, was struck by the strength of some of Alex’s assertions, so I wanted to see if we could start by agreeing that genes are important. The frog/camel example seemed like a simple way to do that.“

                Wow, we sure are coming from different places. “Interrogate epigenetics” is a strange use of language for me. Also, the idea of “seeing if we could start by agreeing” on a specific point also seems strange.

                “3. I was surprised that Alex seemed to resist this basic agreement, and his response struck me as slippery. A natural way to bring this out is with mockery of the resistance to agree to what seems to be simple, obvious facts. (Leaving aside the social acceptability of such a tone.) Such slipperiness makes me suspect that the importance of epigenetics is being inflated.”

                “Alex seemed to resist this basic agreement” – why should he consider it a basic agreement?
                Again, that word “slippery”.
                Also I don’t see how “mockery” is a natural (let alone good) way to go about dealing with someone you really don’t know much about.
                “Resistance to agree” is a phrase I’ve never encountered before. People often disagree. Sometimes they agree to disagree.
                “What seems to be simple, obvious facts” raises red flags for me – “obvious” itself is a red flag in my experience

                “4. This seems to be supported by the sites Alex very helpfully provides. The Sarkar 1996 paper is especially succinct. Yes, biology has evolved from the simple, deterministic notion that genes rigidly encode for the final organism, and we need to realize that our use of words like “coding” and “produce” can be misleading, and things are more complicated than a simple model of genes as rote instructions.”

                This sounds like a good to start to agree on in discussions with Alex.

                “But, Sarkar’s arguments don’t put much of a dent in the ordinary schmoe’s crude conception of DNA. They certainly don’t support the notion that DNA is unimportant, and I don’t see the point of casually sneering at DNA as a nothing-special molecule.”

                The assertions in your second sentence here sound like something you have read into what Alex said – exaggerations of what he said.

                “Until someone can produce a camel from frog DNA, I will continue to believe that DNA’s importance is pretty obvious.”

                Again, that red flag “obvious”.

                “5. I also don’t see the relevance to the issue at hand of research funding. There is a much more obvious reason for the failure of research to find genetic bases for a large number of diseases: killer genes don’t persist in the gene pool because they are killer genes.”

                Again, that red flag “obvious”.

              • Alex Gamma says:

                Terry,
                thanks for the aplogy about tone. I appreciate it. It just so happens that I have a lot of sympathy for your style of arguing because I myself have always had a similar disposition for getting worked up easily in a discussion. Only relatively recently have I managed to get better at controlling this.

                In any case, I was not trying to evade your question about frogs and camels. What I think you may have missed (I might be wrong) is the distinction I’m making between causes-of-a-phenotype and causes-of-differences-between-phenotypes. My arguments all concerned the first issue: the causes of the development of some phenotype, some organism. Your question about frogs and camels, however, is naturally understood as a question about the causes-of-differences, here: about the differences between frog and camel phenotypes. Importantly, now, these two types of causes are not usually the same: often the causes-of-differences-between-phenotypes are only a subset of the causes-of-a-phenotype. Thus, it takes the whole spectrum of causal developmental factors to build a frog, and to build a camel, including DNA. However, the differences between the two species might be caused by only a subset of this spectrum, maybe even largely by differences in DNA (as you seem to think). But don’t forget that organisms do not “start” just with DNA, they start from whole cells (and these have environments, too), and differences in all these different cellular and environmental factors might also contribute to the differences between frogs and camels.

                “No problem. This is epigenetics, right?”

                No, I wasn’t particularly thinking of epigenetics, but it’s true that epigenetics (understood roughly as structural or chemical modifications to DNA) are one of thousands of non-genetic factors that contribute to development.

                “But, how far does that take you? Some people who are big on epigenetics seem to be eager to take this much, much further. Indeed, they seem to want to slide, unnoticed, from “DNA is not everything”, to “DNA is nothing or trivial”…. If that is not what is going on, why is it so hard for some people to admit that DNA appears to be important and heritable?”

                I can see that if you’re coming from a background where people often go from “DNA is not everything” to “DNA is nothing”, you might have interpreted my views to be an example of this. It’s not what I’m thinking, and I perfectly agree with your statement “DNA is obviously important, but it is only one factor among many and not qualitatively different from some others”.

                Where we might disagree is that I clearly think what the world needs is less genetic research and I have explained some of my reasons in my other comments. To make this hopefully even clearer: resources for science are limited. If that weren’t the case, we could let every kind of reseach bloom. But it is the case, and so we can be producing massive opportunity costs by going down unproductive roads. These costs can include the prolongation of unnecessary suffering for patients or even the loss of lives, if in an alternative world where genetics would be cut down to approriate size, other avenues of inquiry would have produced better (and non-genetic) treatments for patients that in the real world were made impossible by resources being caught up in unfruitful genetic research programs.

              • Terry says:

                Alex:

                Excellent response. Thank you for educating me. I don’t have any serious disagreement with what you said.

                Again, thanks for the Sarkar article. I learned some interesting things about the history of theories about the “information” content of DNA. Best of all, the article did it very succinctly and clearly. Since my interest in the history of genetic science is limited, I would not have finished it if it had been more verbose. The first Griffith article was pretty good, but I didn’t finish it because the ratio of effort to insight was too high for me.

            • Martha (Smith) says:

              Correction:

              ” This sounds like a good to start to agree on in discussions with Alex.” –> “This sounds like a good starting place to agree on in discussions with Alex.”

              • Ayse Tezcan says:

                Dear Martha:

                I have made a curious observation about the way you respond on this thread. If I am mistaken, please correct me (which I have no doubt you will ☺) but you take great length in analyzing and tearing apart Terry’s and my comments but finding nothing odd with Alex’s response to my original comment, which was: “i agree there are many well-educated and wise people who are not in academia, and whose input would be valuable to the advancement of science; on the other hand, there are those who think that ‘fruit fly’ studies are a waste of public money!! i would hope that once people are tasked with being in these panels, they would do due diligence to inform themselves and be objective – which is not always the case.” I was simply suggesting that we should be careful with how we go about forming those suggested panels. From this comment, Alex made a huge assumption of my being a genetic determinist!! How do you suggest my view of the role of genetics in evolution or the development of an organism could be assumed from this comment? From “fruit fly” example?? If anything, Alex did exactly what you just responded to Terry: The assertions in your second sentence here sound like something you have read into what Alex said.

                Your responses confused me because you did not seem to have any problem with Alex’s jumping to the conclusion and formulating a response accordingly to my original comment, which was exactly “reading into what I had said.” There were also several other assertions that Alex made lead to my string of questions. After his explanation, I understood what he meant and we indeed had similar understanding of molecular basis of biology.

                We all have limited time to read and respond to these posts and comments; hence, we (emphasis on myself) don’t take time re-read what and how we said things. Sometimes, we miscommunicate an idea or do not completely finish our thoughts, consequently, get misunderstood. It is always good to follow-up and clarify our intent. These exchanges are always opportunities to learn from each other. I, for sure, gain much insight into statistical knowledge and inference, where I have little knowledge, from the conversations here.

                By the way for your information, I am quite familiar with both disciplines of epigenetics and genomics: epigenetics as it was related to my original dissertation proposal but that chapter had to be dropped due to a lack of funding; and genomics as I currently work in the field. However, I did not think this was the place where we needed to discuss molecular biology.

              • Ayse Tezcan says:

                oops! forgot to end the italic; you stop and start when necessary ☺

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Ayse,

                In response to your comment http://andrewgelman.com/2017/10/27/science-funding-political-ideology/#comment-600701:

                I don’t respond to everything in every thread — I skim comments, and respond to those that leap out to me and prompt thoughts that seem worth sharing. I may miss some (often because I may already have spent a lot of time responding to other comments already and need to get on to other tasks).

                As I mentioned in a response to Terry, the word “obvious” is a red flag to me – hence, his comment using “obvious” several times leapt out at me as one warranting a reply. I have consistently tried to teach my students that “obvious” is not giving good evidence or good reasoning, so see that as appropriate in this blog as well. (See also the comment http://andrewgelman.com/2017/05/18/review-duncan-wattss-book-everything-obvious-know-answer/#comment-491025 in a thread from a few months ago.)

                You said, “From this comment, Alex made a huge assumption of my being a genetic determinist!!” I have looked through this thread and haven’t found where Alex stated this assumption. I would appreciate your pointing to where you believe Alex made this assumption.

                If the above is not a satisfactory response to your comment, please clarify where it is lacking.

              • Alex Gamma says:

                Ayse,

                “From this comment, Alex made a huge assumption of my being a genetic determinist!!”

                I don’t know where you did get this impression from, but I didn’t make that assumption. My only reference to genetic determinism was the following passage, and it was not addressed to you.

                “By the way, it’s important to realize that much of this information-based genetic determinism (because that’s what it ultimately is) is existing on the level of unreflected assumptions and unexamined language And that it continues to have effects even if researchers, when pressed, explicitly and vehemently reject genetic determinism.”

              • Terry says:

                Martha:

                Good link to the discussion of “obvious” in a previous blog post.

                In research, avoiding “obvious” is a good rule of thumb, because in research, you are trying to demonstrate new things, so you need to prove everything.

                But, in argumentation, “obvious” is often useful. One way to discredit an opponents is to show that they refuse to acknowledge something that is obvious to a bystander. The strategy is to find the most obvious thing you can get an opponent to disagree with. It works best when you can find something that is really and truly obviously obvious. “Now it is obvious that …. What? You don’t agree that …? Really?” It is also useful in offhandedly dismissing an opponent’s point. “Of course, it is obvious that …”.

                Research is about painstakingly demonstrating new things, so obvious things tend to be rare and uninteresting. But argumentation is about getting people to agree, so it is often useful to state obvious points that everyone, even an opponent, has to agree to.

              • Ayse Tezcan says:

                Thanks everyone for responding to my comment with insightful explanations.

                I might have also made an assumption from Alex’s original response to my comment that my example was in support of genetic determinism. I assumed that because I did not expect my comment to take a direction of why or why not genetic research should be funded or in what proportion it should be funded. It was an example of every scheme of funding would have some drawbacks.

                Regardless, to me, dismissing fruit fly research as a waste of money seemed a bit too pointed. I think the disagreement stems from how we view “waste.” I agree with the fact that many disorders are multi-causal and genes are a necessary but not sufficient part of the entire pie. I bring this perspective to our class and research discussions all the time. I agree that so many other as important causal factors as genes are not sufficiently funded (believe me I personally know) and genomic studies do get a lion share of funding. However, I would not say those genomic studies are a waste of money. We always learn something from every investigation, even from the failed ones.

                Anyways, thanks again for this lively exchange. I have learned much from Alex’s point of view and when I have more time will explore the wealth of philosophy of biology references provided here – as someone who has a personal and professional interest in bioethics, I am always intrigued….

                Have a great Thursday. ☺

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Terry,

                I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around your statement,

                “But, in argumentation, “obvious” is often useful. One way to discredit an opponents is to show that they refuse to acknowledge something that is obvious to a bystander. The strategy is to find the most obvious thing you can get an opponent to disagree with. It works best when you can find something that is really and truly obviously obvious. “Now it is obvious that …. What? You don’t agree that …? Really?” It is also useful in offhandedly dismissing an opponent’s point. “Of course, it is obvious that …”.

                Research is about painstakingly demonstrating new things, so obvious things tend to be rare and uninteresting. But argumentation is about getting people to agree, so it is often useful to state obvious points that everyone, even an opponent, has to agree to.”

                I have not encountered this view before in my 70+years of living and decades in academia. I guess we come from very different (sub)cultures. In mathematics (the field of my formal degrees and my own research), an “argument” consists of giving logical consequences of premises. There is no thought of “discrediting” an “opponent” — we don’t think in terms of “opponents”,just in terms of trying to make sure our reasoning is sound (and, at least ideally, trying to explain it in an organized, well-thought-out manner). “Argument” refers to the reasoning. Arguments are often complex, so the reader/listener usually has to work hard to understand; sometimes this means studying a paper for a long time. In statistics (a field that I moved into), the thinking is similar, except one deals with probabilistic statements, so there is always at least the shadow of a doubt, even if reasoning is careful. (Also, in statistics, quality of data is important.)

              • Terry says:

                Martha:

                There is a basic difference between academic research (including mathematics as well as genetics) with what is called argument in common parlance (think lawyers in court). I am thinking legal argument here. A mathematical argument is completely different. Legal argument is a contest between two hostile parties with the objective of convincing a third party. I am channeling my time in law school.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Terry,

                I hope you have learned from this discussion that the type of argument used in the legal profession is not appropriate when discussing scientific topics.

              • Alex Gamma says:

                Terry & Ayse,

                Thanks for an interesting discussion also from my side, and I’m glad that the papers were helpful to at least one person ;)

    • jrc says:

      I think the role of the Academy is to maintain and generate knowledge. I think we tend to undervalue the “maintenance” part, even in the research process. Doing research and publishing results forces academics to expand their knowledge base and generates a broader aggregate knowledge base from which society benefits massively but in difficult to measure ways. We fund research in large part to keep knowledge alive, and without funding that intellectual labor, societal and human knowledge, and thus human productivity (and probably human welfare), would decrease.

      Or at least that sometimes seems like a compelling argument to me.

      • I agree. One reason to fund research (but also simply to make apportion research time within the ordinary framework of a tenured position) is to let academics satisfy their curiosity. To let them keep their minds active and alive. We don’t want university students to be taught by people who don’t have the time or means satisfy their curiosity about the subjects they teach. We want them to be able to explore their doubts, answer their questions. This “maintenance” function is indeed hugely important. I don’t think funding panels should focus exclusively on “getting results”, and I agree with Kyle that many non-academics can be found who would agree with us about this. Especially those who have a good liberal education.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          “We want [academics] to be able to explore their doubts, answer their questions. This “maintenance” function is indeed hugely important.”

          I guess I can buy that — for example, if this “maintenance” function had been performed in the past few decades, statistics teaching and practice would be in a much better state than it is now (with watered down textbooks and QRP’s widespread). But given the prevalence of poor textbooks and widespsread QRP’s, I have to conclude that the current requirement for faculty research has not successfully performed this maintenance function.

    • Yes non-scientists as well as all stakeholders, for example public who are research subjects & those who may have tacit learning which may also be of value. I’ll speak to Senator Paul about it when I see him next.

    • Thomas thanks for your perspective. I concur that laypeople can foster expert accountability, as laypeople are the largest stakeholder of expertise. HIV/AIDS groups were stakeholders as you know. So too in other diseases. I think that the conflicts of interests can be implicated in some advocacy as well. So criteria for lay participation is important to spell out.

      • Any time. I agree that the non-scientists should be free of conflicts of interests. I’m not sure that funding panels should have stakeholder representation, however, though I do believe that major research projects should seek input from stakeholders as a matter of course.

        In a sense, the presence of a dis-interested layperson on a panel just raises the bar a little for arguments that are supposed to establish the value-neutrality of a specific piece of research. Sometimes, like fish swimming in water, scientists who share the same values think that research that promotes those values is “neutral”. It can be good for them to show that the actual value neutrality of the study lies in the methodological rigor it applies to check well-known sources of bias.

        That is: a given funding proposal may describe an entirely objective study, but the panelists may forget to notice this because they’re so comfortable with its values. Some intelligent questions can force them to articulate the true value of the study for society as a whole, not just the value that is immediately visible to members of the “scientific class”. This may result in modifications to the study that not only ensure its social value but actually strengthens its scientific rigor. Win, win.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Inglis mentions Jerome Groopman’s 2005 book “How Doctors Think” as much better than Lamont’s book. I haven’t read Lamont’s, but found Groopman’s very interesting.

  3. BenK says:

    When the conservatives attack agricultural research funding, consider that they may actually be proving their point against a hard case rather than an easy case. It is also interesting that they are going after things that are typically conducted not in the coastal blue states, but in the ‘relatively purple’ college towns of the relatively red states. So this is interesting.

    Military research funding is a whole other thing, which is not necessarily as red state leaning as you might think. The prime contractors and many secondaries are really blue state entities.

    So there is a level of authenticity to the claim, frankly, that the researchers are seen as impractical and parasitic. Putting this gloss of tribalism on it is not helpful. It is an attempt to demonize, frankly.

    • Andrew says:

      Benk:

      “An attempt to demonize”?? Where does that come from? It’s not “demonizing” a politician to consider that he may have political motivations! It many ways, it’s the job of a politician to have political motivations. As I wrote specifically in my above post, the proposals of Sen. Paul or others “should be evaluated on their merits.” At the same time, it can be helpful to consider their political context. That’s not “an attempt to demonize,” not at all.

  4. TJ says:

    Good grief. Rand Paul, his Republican colleagues, and people at the CATO, AEI and elsewhere don’t give a mouse whisker about evidence or the greater good of discovery.

    They’re playing a zero sum game called patronage.

  5. jrkrideau says:

    It strikes me that funding various areas of research where one is expecting an economic return is a bit like venture capitalism. You fund a lot of projects knowing that some are not going to work, you just don’t know which ones. If you go for only the sure bets as a conservative investor you fail to make the big profits.

    Another question is, “Is there a role for a government in funding pure research?” Clearly Rand Paul is stating that there is not. This seems to imply that the USA should not fund any speculative research what-so-ever.

  6. Ayse Tezcan says:

    on the funding of basic science research through the private sector, one should also keep in mind that the main purpose of a company is to make a profit. they use the existing knowledge to turn it into a marketable product. if we don’t support academic research, who will charter into the unknown? maybe SBIR is a good experiment. if it works, the bulk of research public funding could be channeled towards the private sector. no system is perfect. we have to have faith in free market principles to believe that the investments in private businesses will not be wasted and the domain is self-correcting; otherwise, inefficiencies will not be any less than they are in the public domain.

  7. oncodoc says:

    To state the obvious: basic research looks at the unknown and outcomes are often not translatable in a profitable product. In retrospect, many lines of investigation lead nowhere. Good results are uncommon. I wonder what politicians of the past thought about the value of changing the morphology of bacterial growth using a cell free product of a variant line.
    Chinese spending on science is about 80% of US. Sooner or later, they’ll come up with a real breakthrough. Leaders can not coast. Senators of the future will be beating their chests about the gaps we are now allowing to exist.

  8. Martha (Smith) says:

    Some elaboration related to the link I gave above in the comment http://andrewgelman.com/2017/10/27/science-funding-political-ideology/#comment-597888, and how it ties in with some things others have mentioned in the meanwhile.

    The lead author of the report I linked to is Simon French, who recently gave a talk here on decisions in the wake of the the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. It was a very good talk; I had hoped I could find a copy of it online, but the closest I came was the link I gave above.

    One thing French mentioned is very relevant to the discussion above of having people from outside (e.g., patients) play a role in designing studies. He said that the decision analysis framework he uses involves starting with panels of “experts” in various aspects of the problem. He gave the physicians panel for Chernoble as an example of how this can provide important input: The physician experts (i.e., physicians with previous experience treating people affected by radiation leaks) had individually observed that in the aftermath of radiation leaks, they observed an increase of stress-related illnesses (including heart attacks), and that in some cases these seemed to be a greater cause of morbidity/mortality than radiation-caused illnesses. This gave important information both for planning for treatment after radiation leaks, and also to take into consideration in how to focus public announcements about such accidents — that perhaps they could and should take into consideration how to minimize the stress-related effects.

    This seems to be an idea that needs to be taken more seriously in a lot of academic research: Ask those who have experience with the situation what they see as the problems to be solved and the unintended (or unexamined) consequences of possible courses of action. All too often, I believe, researchers start with a theory and don’t do any informal checks on the theory (like asking the people involved!) before planning and carrying out their study.

    The link I gave above is to a long document, but it has lots of points worth thinking about — e.g., the way different people use different terms, so you may think you are talking about apples when they hear oranges. (My paraphrase.)

  9. Terry says:

    As I said before, this earmark coverage with an emphasis on agriculture is a recurring event. I remember Howard Kurtz getting all giggly over earmarks for research on dealing with waste from pig farms about ten years ago and I’ve lost count of the examples since then. . . .

    There is a lot of very good economic research on agricultural products. The field routinely produces high quality, sophisticated, and useful research. Almost any agricultural market you can think of has been seriously analyzed.

    Agricultural research is not the area I would cite to as an obvious waste of taxpayer money.

  10. Clyde Schechter says:

    I think the notion that research has to promote economic growth is short-sighted at best. At the very least, any such analysis needs to have a very long time horizon.

    To take just one example, we would not have the fruits of Silicon Valley without computers. We would not have computers without transistors. We would not have transistors without quantum mechanics. We would not have quantum mechanics without Hilbert space. But from the development of Hilbert space to Silicon Valley is a time span of about a century. Had David Hilbert been forced to defend the usefulness of his work, I doubt very much he would have foreseen any of this.

    I think there is enormous potential for research funding to be directed towards higher quality, more rigorous research. But to demand of research that it contribute to economic growth (except over time spans that exceed foreseeability) would be foolish. It would be yet another instance of failing to invest in things that promote the well-being of future generations.

  11. LauraK says:

    I think the economic value is so not the right metric. Satisfying Curiosity (in ethical ways) is worth funding and worth doing. Exploration benefits us all and unites us as humans as does the arts and humanities which is exploration of a different nature but very much worth doing. This idea that the only things that matter are things we can count or measure (or attempt to count or measure in the case of the economy) I think is harmful to science.

    • poorlando says:

      Too many vague appeals to the greater good in the comments section. While benefits of basic research are unknowable or unmeasurable and probably lead to some good somewhere at some time, the problem is that government budgets are finite and constrained. The question is then how to allocate money to both knowable, immediate, quantifiable needs and to research whose benefits are unquantifiable and largely uncertain. If we can’t associate numbers, like an economic value, to the research, then how does one rationally approach the decision on how much to spend on it?

      • Alex Gamma says:

        “If we can’t associate numbers, like an economic value, to the research, then how does one rationally approach the decision on how much to spend on it?”

        One way is to evaluate the theoretical and conceptual solidity of the research. A lot of this work is done by philosophers of science, and more recently by critical bloggers. The results don’t necessarily reach the intended audience, though, partly because of academic “bubbles”.

      • jrc says:

        Here are some numbers hinting that researchers doing basic science at universities generate positive contributions to economic growth:

        “Between 1982 and 2001, the average wage earned by workers with a bachelor’s degree jumped 31 percent and the average wage for those with an associate’s degree rose 12 percent, while the average wage for a high school graduate was essentially unchanged. As a result, the wage premium earned by those with a college degree doubled over this period, reaching nearly 80 percent for workers with a bachelor’s degree and almost 30 percent for those with an associate’s degree.”

        The economist in me wants to say that if a teacher with a B.A. could generate those returns, people wouldn’t be paying for Ph.D’s to do it. The empiricist in me just wants to say that the system that trained professors from the 1970’s-2010’s seems to be generating quite a lot of value for the economy in terms of labor productivity and technological advancement.

        Of course, this argument is superfluous. But if someone doesn’t see how basic geologic research helps keeps our bridges from crumbling, or how understanding plant virus mutations helps us keep food on the table, then maybe the labor market benefits will make the point: that our scientific advantage and our economic advantage are inextricably linked. And that if we lose our scientific advantage we are nearly certain to lose our economic advantage.

        Furthermore, I am of the opinion that there is a lot of bad “science” being done. That does not in any way outweigh the arguments above for the economic value of basic research.

      • Terry says:

        All good points.

        Perhaps it is helpful to think of the problem at the margin. It is obviously worthwhile to do at least some academic research. But, that research may be infra-marginal. The question is whether the government should spend more or less than it is spending now, which is a marginal question.

        To my eye, many fields have way too many researchers at work. An awful lot of researchers seem unable to find anything useful to do and have to resort to silly research. If so, spending more money at the margin will not produce additional useful research because there doesn’t seem to be any additional research that needs doing (at least in some areas).

  12. Andreas says:

    Rand Paul may indeed have the political motives you suggest, however, Paul is more of a small government guy (libertarian) than classically conservative, and is perhaps a less likely candidate of such biases.

    He might likely be spurred by Kealey’s arguments which are more sophisticated: Public funding results in the best researchers more likely being at academic institutions than private companies (see: https://www.cato-unbound.org/2013/08/05/terence-kealey/case-against-public-science).

    This actually ties back to your writings about the replication crisis, and studies that are dead on arrival, in the sense that these phenomena might be less prevalent if research was more closely tied to organizations with an actual interest in the outcome of the scientific work.

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