Science funding. How much?

Dec 20, 2012

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There is a cogent piece in Nature attacking many claims about how much money should be spent on scientific research. I do not think there is anything stikingly new about the arguments, but it is unusual for the mainstream science literature to give them much space. David Golston writes:

The first problem is that some of Plan A’s familiar claims cannot survive close scrutiny. For example, two prestigious groups, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Academy of Sciences, this year issued reports that call for total US research-and-development spending to increase until it reaches at least 3% of gross domestic product. The Obama administration has cited this goal for some time, and the European Union has a similar goal.

Unfortunately, there is little analytical basis for this number; it is a political assertion masquerading as a mathematical constant. The only argument in its favour is that some nations spend that much. Those countries hardly add up to a coherent case; they include nations with smaller economies, as well as countries such as Japan, which has been in the economic doldrums for years.

The number does not take into account what kind of research is being pursued, or by what sectors of the economy, or how much is actually being spent. A dissertation could be written on how 3% acquired its magical properties, but the number doesn’t even seem to be based on spending levels in some past golden age. Rather, it is more of a back-of-the-envelope comparison done when the United States got nervous about competitiveness in the 1980s.

Is there any real harm in this? Yes, in at least two ways. The target helps to fuel the scientific community’s demoralizing and distorted sense that it is being neglected and wilfully financed at suboptimal levels. And it leaves science advocates unable to answer persuasively if officials ask for proof that funding is inadequate or for an estimate of what would be sufficient.

I agree. The science lobby often plays loose, and without much respect for data in this area. That much science should be publicly funded, and that there is a relation between science and technological advance and economic growth, I have little problem with. But what sort of science we should fund, versus other uses for public money, and how we can best capitalise on science performed elsewhere, are all questions that deserve more scrutiny. All too often the science lobby looks selfish and self-centred. Ironically, this lack of insight undermines what I think still remain the central reasons for funding of science: that it is the preeminent way for understanding how the world works and our place in it; and that it  achieves this because of a respect for truth over short term utility. If you do not immediately see things this way, then you should take a look at Bruce Charlton’s excellent monograph on the decline of Real Science, and scientific integrity (Not even Trying: The corruption of real science).

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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