I treat physicists like lemons: I squeeze them dry and throw them away. -Carlo Rubbia
About a year ago, two illustrious Erics (this blog seems to have a thing for illustrious Erics) wrote an op-ed defending America's "#miraclemachine". The #miraclemachine is a shiny new name given to America's federally funded army of scientists housed in universities and research institutions across the country. That's a rather nice name, isn't it? We ought to be suspicious when people make new names for old things. A holy machine that mechanizes the production of miracles makes the entrance requirements for Catholic sainthood appear rather quaint. The Erics lament that the sacred machine will stop providing the milk of advancement unless we save it from disrepair.
You see, this machine (remarkable as it is), doesn't give out miracles for free. It needs fuel like all engines bound by the laws of thermodynamics. Burning fuel certainly provides benefits but determining value requires that we compare those benefits against costs (cf. climate change). The machine doesn't take dollars to produce scientific breakthroughs directly; it produces people who are ultimately the real fuel that is consumed for breakthroughs.
Careful What You Wish For
The Erics discuss the importance of broad areas of scientific research, but specifically highlight biomedicine which is largely funded by the NIH, an agency whose inflation adjusted budget (currently about 35 billion dollars) "has fallen since 2003 by nearly 25 percent". That seems bad, doesn't it? What isn't mentioned is that between 1998 and 2003, the NIH saw an unprecedented doubling of its budget. If this is the sort of thing that the #miraclemachine proponents are advocating, we ought to look at the outcomes associated with the doubling.
The budget doubling created a bumper crop of biomedical scientists, many of whom suffered harm in terms of mental health, income and job security. Understanding the totality of the depressing state of scientific careers is difficult to do concisely but there are an infinite number of opinion pieces and articles in mainstream scientific journals that call for an end to the madness of printing more researchers. If one wants to find an article describing the reality of the situation, consider throwing a rock:
- The Not Quite Stated Awful Truth
- Graduate Students Need More Mental Health Support
- The Price Of Doing a Postdoc
- Too Many Postdocs Not Enough Research Jobs
- Are scientists a workforce? – Or, how Dr. Frankenstein made biomedical research sick A proposed plan to rescue US biomedical research from its current ‘malaise’ will not be effective as it misdiagnoses the root cause of the disease
Many scientists shake their heads when they hear calls for increased enrollment in graduate school and "STEM" education. There are sound reasons not to feed the #miraclemachine too much. The public gets a great deal; the people that come out of the #miraclemachine, not so much.
Marching for Science The Institution
A number of people will be marching today "for science". But what is science really? Science The Method doesn't need a march, it's the only way to understand stuff: "Figure out how things work and really try to make sure you're right". Science The Institution is the framework of government and industry that plans the capital and labor required to bring advancements to fruition. That's really the #miraclemachine that the Erics are talking about. Science The Method plays an important role in Science The Institution but only as a means to an end. Science The Institution is filled with the same unpleasant and irrational notions that pervade all aspects of human endeavors.
There are serious problems with Science The Institution that need to be highlighted and addressed. You won't find a franker discussion of the cronyism at the NIH than at the NIH website itself. The publishing industry doesn't seem to like people commenting anonymously on plainly incorrect scientific papers. We elevate comically incompetent scientists into advisory positions on government panels that govern the content of children's school lunches. Prominent charities that fund research take on anti-scientific policies. There are dubious relationships between the people that decide what research will be funded and the industries they wind up in after their tenure at the NIH. Stroll through PubPeer and you'll find a lot of credible expertise highlighting the vast ocean of otherwise unchallenged nonsense in published literature. An entire arm of the NIH spent 130 millions dollars last year devoted to telling us that make believe medicine seems to be make believe (but more research is needed). You can see why some of us might have trouble having faith in a machine with this sort of integrity.
Many of these problems seem to be facilitated by the perverse incentives of Science The Institution. Science The Method has taught us that miracles are not real. One should question the invocation of mythical things when critically discussing the benefits and costs of Science The Institution. Resolving some of the glaring problems and placing a greater emphasis on integrity, careful thinking and fairness may give the public an even better deal on this machine than it has now.