Why did it take a private foundation to do public science right?

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2016/08/10/why-did-it-take-a-private-foun.html


A big problem, THE big problem, is this: http://www.faseb.org/Portals/2/images/opa/Factsheet_Restore-NIH-Funding-Graph1.gif

It’s ludicrous to expect public research to work when it is steadily being bled dry of funding. Consider that in addition to the inflation-adjusted losses shown here, there is also the fact that the population is growing and more new researchers are being trained every day. This means more people competing for less grant money.

This is just simple math. Science is fucked because this country, with all of its vaunted interest in scientific advancement, doesn’t pay for it. In a situation of scarcity and poverty, all of the results you might expect follow - conservative research, lack of collaboration, hoarding, turf-warring, etc.

The University system and the increasing financialization of universities is also a big issue, but the public funding drought is the main one.

It would be nice if science-heads like the geeks who read this blog were activist about this issue, but essentially no one is. Science can’t happen if we don’t fund it.


I like the basic thrust of your post, but it’s worth noting that graph uses one of the standard tricks for misleading the public.

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Fair enough, but the trend is real, continuous across decades, and the effect size is actually pretty big. This instead if you like: http://image.slidesharecdn.com/leadershipindeclinepresentationumr-130213134742-phpapp01/95/leadership-in-decline-assessing-us-international-competitiveness-in-biomedical-research-7-638.jpg?cb=1360763779

Yeah, but again you’re kind of over stating things. Despite steady decline over just over a decade (making decade s technically true but somewhat spurious), funding has ‘collapsed’ to where it was in … 2001.

I take your point about that amount of money having to be spread over more researchers, and science being more expensive now, and a 20% reduction being no joke, etc etc

Sure, let’s cut Federal grant support for research. Since the obvious consequence would be a greater share of undergraduate tuition money funding the research, let’s prevent that by mandating free tuition. Universities should be self-sustaining without any external source of revenue. Don’t most of them have graphic arts departments where the faculty could be put to better use printing money?


I found this argument from the article to be just bizarre. Let’s get rid of grants that fund research and the university. Then the university can pay for its operations and research with ???. And let’s not build any more buildings, because researchers can just do their research in ???. I would love to never write another grant again, but this type of silver bullet thinking is so frustrating to me, especially coming from other researchers. And it kind of ignores that universities do invest pretty heavily in researchers. In my field, it’s common for start-up to run north of 500K, not including renovations.

And I’m going to be honest, I don’t know what the answer to the science funding crash is. But between my right wing family’s ‘Why are we spending any money on this godless science crap’ and my left-wing friends’ ‘Why aren’t you doing all the science, and providing all the results open access, and fixing STEM diversity and providing students with tuition-free education’, it gets pretty demoralizing to even be in this field.


In this case it wasn’t a misleading choice, but there are tricks you can do to communicate things better.

It’s very clearly labeled, and if the intent is to show the impact of inflation and sequestration in a way people will understand then the scaling is appropriate. I’d also think there’d be a benefit in showing the variance from the per-capita funding of other nations and/or trendlines that show the variance from what would have been expected if we continued trends from the 50s-70s.

The whole ‘Y-axis’ thing is beyond overused, just like the ‘pie charts are evil’ trope (they’re quite useful when displaying slices that group together and can be arranged next to each other, and they’re instantly recognizable…if you want a problem child, let’s talk stacked bars). Proper data visualization is complicated and nuanced and some visualizations are situational, this certainly doesn’t come close to passing the ‘likely intent to mislead’ test.

Source: It’s my job and since 2007 I’ve been the go-to resource for my peers for methods to better communicate complicated data visually.


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Don’t forget to factor in population increases, inflation, public research that ends up in private hands creating cost sinks rather than benefits, and the cost to acquire equipment vs. the cost to acquire staff.

If anything @astazangasta is understating the heck out of things. Plus one needs to be careful about private research to make sure there’s no financial incentives to meet a narrative or ‘not rock the boat’


I specifically acknowledged increasing population.
Why would I include inflation when the graph specifically accounts for it.
I specifically acknowledged the rising cost of ‘doing science’.

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You did mention population increases, my apologies there!

I mentioned the inflation bit because even though it’s in the graph not everybody has clicked it so it wasn’t really prudent to leave it out. I knew YOU had seen it though. :slight_smile:

And I mentioned the split between equipment and researchers. vs. a pure cost because I’m confident that it would tell a far more coherent story. I’m not even sure what that story would tell (the fun of data analytics is the occasional surprise) but it’s definitely more appropriate than just a pure cost. I’d expect a ramp up in equipment costs as well as a funneling of money from low-paid resources towards high, but I’ve only seen documentation on the latter. Digging for root causes becomes kind of pathological after a while!

Of course then you’re at the point where the viz is cluttered and you need to go interactive or get selective, but I’ll faint from shock when I finally have a viz where the data isn’t overly comfortable where I end up swapping an element or two. :wink:

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… and you raise a fair point about the difference between extending the trend line vs flatlining from 2001. I’d overlooked that :slight_smile:

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It’s not often one sees a trendline for a complex system that sits at zero, I like how you described it better though!

I’m going to have to use that IRL! Thanks for increasing my snark-quota :wink:

We Libertarians told you so.

Funny, I don’t remember y’all telling us if we took all public funding away from science, publicly funded science would flounder. Sounds … more like … something I would say. Hm. :laughing:

The Allen Institute has a goal of expanding the boundaries of human scientific knowledge. They’re doing science without a goal of making money. This isn’t a win for capitalism or enlightened self-interest or Galtian self-destruction to punish the public for a lack of brilliance.

It’s a win for getting resources to people doing worthwhile things.


On my campus, startup in the sciences comes from the research overhead pool, so it doesn’t really count as universities investing in the researchers, but they do invest in other ways, not least by covering some or all of their salaries even when they are not teaching (or teaching just boutique courses).

The fact is that science is expensive, in real dollars much more than it used to be, and possibly we can’t afford to do it anymore, at least at the levels we’ve been at for the last 30 years, but we shouldn’t pretend you can still do it without paying for it.

Also, full credit to those Silicon Valley billionaires who recognize that their wealth is based in large part on the fruits of publicly-funded scientific research, and who have chosen to give back a little.


Er… wut?

I’m all for spending less on amenities and administrators (though I suspect the former is more to blame than the latter, often spawning it) I don’t see how this helps. Universities, especially public universities are seeing dwindling contributions from the state, but I fail to see how the solution is to drain tuition.

The funding hamster wheel and publish-or-perish models suck, but I don’t see how making universities foot a higher proportion of the bill would make that better in any way, shape, or form. That being said, I’m appalled that we can’t seem to think of a better system. Right now, the system is barely designed to support the scientific method. We don’t share negative results, we create huge experiments that require huge funding to replicate, and everyone guards their data like it’s made of money… because in a sense it is. You’d think with so many PhDs in the mix, someone would have come up with something better.


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