Thought of the Day on how the Public Views Scientists

The comments that are submitted to the NPR pieces on NIH, NIH-funded science and academic careers by Richard Harris (see here, here, here) are interesting.

One of the things that is immediately picked up by the typical reader is the conceit we scientists express about having a job paid for by taxpayer funds, that allows us to do whatever we want, unfettered and without any obligation to the people paying for the work.

One example of the type:

I argue that the very presence of government (taxed) money is "free" money to scientists to indulge in directions that perhaps are pointless. When something is free, people line-up to collect it (with bad science or poor quality work). A better approach is no funding at all. Then, only the best science would be a candidate for private funding since that is money that people are voluntarily investing expecting a return.

This is what you call an own-goal, people. We cause it by the way we talk about our jobs.

We usually get into this topic most specifically when we are discussing overhead rates awarded to local Universities by the Federal process and when we are discussing the percentage of faculty salaries that should be paid from Federal grants versus the University pot of MagicLeprechaunFairyMoney.

I am the one who continually makes the point that science funded by the NIH (or DOD, CDC, FDA, NSF and a bunch of other Federal entities) should be viewed EXACTLY the same as any other good or service. I tend to get a lot of push-back on this from those of you who are committed to the argument that Universities need to put "skin in the game" and that the solution to the entire NIH budget problem lies with defunding those Universities who get more than 50% overhead.

Bushwa. Science is no different from any other good or service the Federal government wishes to obtain. Yes, the deliverables are going to differ in terms of how concrete they may be but this makes no difference to the main point. The US Federal government pays Universities, Research Institutes and the occasional small business to conduct research. That is what they want, that is what we extramural, NIH-funded scientists provide them with.

The fact that we find it enjoyable is of no importance. The folks making money off building the latest jet fighter (that doesn't work) or the latest software security package for the FBI (that doesn't work) or the latest armor for the Humvees (that we hope works better) find their profits enjoyable. The people getting paid to send plumbers and truck drivers and "private security contractors" along with our military to help pacify Afghanistan or Iraq enjoy making many times the salary they would get otherwise in the civilian world.

Know anyone in elite military jobs? I have known several in my lifetime. Guess what? They enjoy the everloving blazes out of the opportunity that they had to DO something that they find personally fulfilling. Do we question the SEAL or Ranger or TopGun type duder and ask them to do it for free just because they find their jobs personally fulfilling and the taxpayer is footing the bill? Isn't the fact that they are shoo-ins for much better paid gigs as airline pilots and "private security contractors" in their post-Federal-employment career evidence that we don't need to worry about how they are paid while doing the Nation's business?

In many of these cases, the companies and people responding to the US Government request for a good or service tell the government exactly what and how they choose to respond. They present themselves as available for the task. The Government agencies involved then select the winner via a competitive bidding process or other competitive review. Sounds very similar to the NIH Grant game to me.

The Government very frequently, if I read the newspapers correctly, ends up paying even more than the bid, more than expected, more than reasonable for that good or service. Cost overruns. Ooopsies. Progress not as expected in the wildly optimistic original bid. Stuff happens when trying to build a complex modern fighter jet. Mission creep. Is the variable outcome of a NIH Grant funding interval any different? Why should anyone expect it to be different?

I also note that it has to get really, really bad in terms of excessive payouts and utter failure to provide a semblance of the good or service before the Nation's attention is engaged when it comes to most other areas. Golden toilet seats in my era. Then it was fighter jets. Then Haliburton's war profiteering and Blackstoneriverwtfever "security". FBI software upgrade. Fighter jets again. It goes on and on.

The extramural NIH-funded science area of government contracting for goods and services really doesn't look so bad when you put it up against the proper comparison.

We generate knowledge and we publish it. Just as we are asked to do. By the US taxpayer.

The individual taxpayer may object to the US federal government asking us to provide them with a service. That's fine. I have a problem with the amount of military stuff we ask for.

But don't try to pretend we scientists are grifters, looking for a handout to do whatever the heck we want, purely on our own hook. We choose to work in a particular job sector, true. But a lot of other people choose to work in a federally-funded job sector as well.

We should be viewed the same. We should view ourselves* as the same.

__
*consistent with the percentage of our effort dedicated to Federal goods and services requests, of course.

36 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    Work is work. Work should be paid. Enjoying your work doesn't change that. It's good that the government promotes and pays for science. They should do more of it.

    That said, I believe many of the elite, wealthy universities are fleecing the government, and the taxpayer is rightly pissed. Hell, I've personally seen direct (illegal) evidence of it. Federal money needs to come with a strong audit, and schools need to have skin in the game. Soft money, shit-paid adjuncts, and ridiculous admin/TT prof ratios should disqualify schools from federal funding.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Are you aware of the extent to which Haliburton fleeced the US taxpayer, even without considering that their man Cheney started the whole thing up in the first place?

  • DM,

    excellent post. I would simply add that, as federal contractors, scientists need to be more self-interested: it's not crass, beneath you, or a waste of time to contact your representatives regarding funding. Every other federal contractor does so; as you note, we certainly shouldn't be ashamed to do so.

  • K99er says:

    I'm not sure this NPR series is doing any good for scientists. They seem to pick angles for their stories that are not logically sound or are easy to dismiss.

    Example: Scientists are cutting corners and fraudulently representing their results. Therefore, give scientists more money. Huh???

    Another example: They profiled a scientist a couple weeks ago who couldn't get money to study why obese parents have obese kids. Maybe there is some really interesting non-obvious science there, but this was not a good example for the general public because it is too easy to dismiss as trivial.

    I stopped posting this kind of stuff to my own Facebook feed because I know my friends are sick of it. I decided a while ago to only post about our research victories, large and small.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Thanks. And excellent suggestion.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    That was to MtM's comment

  • dr24hours says:

    "Are you aware of the extent to which Haliburton fleeced the US taxpayer, even without considering that their man Cheney started the whole thing up in the first place?" - DM

    Of course I am. Is there anyone who isn't? But just because Person A did something unconscionable, that doesn't justify person B doing something bad.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    It's called perspective.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Lacking perspective has its own moral calculus. Need we go through the examples?

  • dr24hours says:

    I am quite aware that the scale is absurdly different. Like, several orders of magnitude. But is the average taxpayer as sure of that? I'm intimately involved with federally funded research, and I've been intimately involved with DoD and DVA operations. Of course I have that perspective. But this isn't about my perspective or not, it's about whether the taxpayers can reasonably be expected to have the same.

    The problem is that perspective is actually quite difficult. Humans suck at contemplating large numbers, in general. Otherwise, no one would play the lottery. So, yeah, Halliburton and golden toilet seats are seen as egregious wastes by a huge segment of the population and rightly. And research waste, fraud, and abuse is often high profile and has long numbers after it, preceded by a dollar sign. It's easy for someone not paying close attention to get it wrong.

    And it is nothing but conceit to think that the american taxpayer has nothing better to do than pay close attention to research funding policy.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    False equivalencies, such as your continual jihad expresses, contribute to this public confusion. So don't act all innocent.

  • Dave says:

    it's not crass, beneath you, or a waste of time to contact your representatives regarding funding

    FFS change the record. When the only senators in your state are extreme right-wing baggers, believe me, it's a waste of time.

  • becca says:

    These people aren't comparing us to other government funded enterprises. These people are assuming that all government funded enterprises are, a priori, wasteful. These people scornfully tell soldiers they are leeches (at least, if the soldier is the wrong shade and has dared to have children).

  • Dr24hours says:

    I have literally no idea what you think my "jihad" is. And I don't think you do either.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I'm not sure how much you can infer from the comments submitted to a news website.

    a) Newspaper (or other news organization) comment sections are among the lowest of the low in terms of online discourse. Due to their peculiar almost-no-moderation policies they are the haunts of troglodytes who have been banned from everywhere else.

    b) Any online discussion of any public good apart from the military will inevitably be swarmed by libertarians babbling "BigGovernmentBadFreeMarketsGoodEleventy!!!"

  • Dave says:

    "BigGovernmentBadFreeMarketsGoodEleventy!!!"

    Mock it at your peril. These people vote, and they are winning.

  • GM says:

    The really serious own goals have to do with the perception of science that scientists have cultivated among the public. OK, it was not just them, Hollywood and the media contributed a lot, but scientists did not do anything to turn things around. We have basically traded the long-term future of science (and really of humanity as a whole, because there is one reality-based self-check mechanism that it has, and it's science, and if that mechanism fails to stop globally self-destructive behavior, then humanity is doomed) for a few decades of increasing funding, which is very short-term and short-sighted thinking compared to the time scale on which we should be thinking about these things.

    The dominant perception of science in our society equates it with the development of technology and cures. This is completely wrong - those things are side effects of the primary purpose of science, which is to improve our understanding of the world around us. Drugs, therapies, cool gadgets, etc., those can be useful things and are an inevitable side product, but they are not and should not be the main goal.

    Now, you will say "The public pays the bill, therefore the public has the right to get what it wants". I call BS on it - the average member of the public has only slightly more awareness and understanding of the world around him than a chimp does compared to what is required for humanity as a whole not to be the dysfunctional mess it is today, and is thus completely unqualified to have any say on these matters. And we should stop feeding this mindset.

    But we're doing the opposite - we keep selling science for its benefits to boosting economic growth, technology and health, and forget the long-term consequences of doing so. As with everything else, there are diminishing returns here (and they are being hit in many areas) so what happens when the public has been promised quick cures and it turns out they are going to be very difficult and/or take very long to be developed, if ever? That's not an abstract scenario - see what happened with the human genome and how that was sold to the public; the only thing saving us there is that nobody really remembers what was said back then as people have short attention spans and that's assuming they ever cared to listen in the first place. And that's the small problem - the big problem is that science clearly tells that economic growth should stop and be reversed immediately as it is the combination of it and population growth is what keeps driving us deeper and deeper into ecological overshoot, otherwise the planet is toast, yet you never see any prominent scientists with very very few exceptions every say anything grounded in reality on the subject. That's suicidal behavior - it may keep the system going for some time into the future, but eventually everything will fall apart. Yes, the BSDs of today will be dead or at the very least retired, so they don't care, but that's the very definition of irresponsible behavior.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Mock it at your peril. These people vote, and they are winning.

    This. My god folks, haven't you noticed there's an entire "news" teevee operation dedicated to this stuff?

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Not to mention that Rush Limbaugh continues to spew his garbage opinions over the radio, Ann Coulter over the internet, etc. and people ACTUALLY TAKE THEIR OPINIONS SERIOUSLY.

    I swear to the gods and goddesses, there are way too many people who seclude themselves in their rightwing ideological bubbles in this country for us to have any hope of a turn-around in voting trends.

    We still live in a country where KKK members dare gather in public wearing their white bedsheets.

    I really liked your original post, DM.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    GM: The dominant perception of science in our society equates it with the development of technology and cures. This is completely wrong - those things are side effects of the primary purpose of science, which is to improve our understanding of the world around us.

    I'm glad that you're not talking to Congress on our behalf. You may be right, but that attitude can only doom the budget for and interest in science. When the NIH bigwigs testify to Congress, they talk about the impact of disease and the findings that have improved health. They briefly mention (but the sensible Congressmen know this) that the results are due to large investments in basic science.

    Most people (including myself) don't really know the true meaning of measurements. We put it in terms of things we can understand: 50 degrees F means wear a light jacket (where I live), 20 miles means 20-25 minutes on the highway, and 750 ml is too much wine for one person. It's the same thing for science. If you tell the general public that science is about exploring nature and understanding the physical and biologicallllllllllllllllllll

    Sorry, I just fell asleep typing that last sentence. My point is that the public understands science as it relates to them. That means vaccines and drugs and smartphones. You can't arrogantly talk about science in the abstract and expect people to support you with their tax dollars. You have to connect it to their lives.

  • mytchondria says:

    14 comments and we go from 'doing the nations business' to 'damn you Rush!'

    ENUF!

    Here's the deal, kids, DM is right but lets stop the mutal masturbation party. You think Rush and AnnWe work for the people. Did you just hear Rush bash science? Call and and tell him he's wrong. Call Dr Oz. Write your op/eds. Write the people who are advertising on these shitte shows and tell them you won't buy their shitte.

    Vote. Make fuckken appointments and show up at your elected officials offices. Get grateful patient letters together. Get grateful trainee letters together.

    "Wahhh....I don't have the time Mytochondria!" STFU. You're about to have a shitte ton of time on your hands because you won't have funding.

    Any advisor worth their salt is training scientist and fuckken advocates. Those trainees are young and filled with ATP and shitte and DO vote. And they want jobs. And they will call the fuckkers out. Those little eyes in lab are looking at you wondering why you aren't pissed off and making those calls, going to those appointments and writing those people.

    Go to ResearchAmerica and sign up to get alerts on big votes. Oh, and, boohoo, you have Right Wing Nutters representing you? Yeah, go to 314pac and invest in STEM savvy candidates running for Congress in swing states right fuckken now. Then you know, write your buddies that do live in their districts telling them to vote for the proscience peeps. Email....it works past state lines.

    8 hours a month. Do eeet.

  • Ola says:

    Re: DM's original post, similar points have also been leveled against the whole retraction watch, pubpeer, etc. lobby. The idea being that if the public gets wind of the amount of fraud in the life sciences (and 1% of a very big number is still a big number), they will freak out. So, we'd best all shut up about it - Joe (re)public(an) is on the lookout for his pound of flesh and NIH is a sitting duck right now. The silence of Rockey and Franky on this issue (no comments for NPR, no blog posts highlighting the media stories) does not bode well.

    On another level, I'd like to know more about the background for the NPR stories. Practically nothing for half a decade, and then 4 stories in a week about NIH and life science funding, what now? What prompted the stories? Who approached Harris? Who did he approach? How long has he been working on them? Are there more due in the series?

    This series is perhaps the biggest media event about our field in the past 5 years, and we have to own it. If Rockey/Collins/YOU don't say something in public, the teabaggers and warmongering douchnozzles will dominate the interpretation.

  • GM says:

    Davis Sharp September 15, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    I'm glad that you're not talking to Congress on our behalf. You may be right, but that attitude can only doom the budget for and interest in science. When the NIH bigwigs testify to Congress, they talk about the impact of disease and the findings that have improved health. They briefly mention (but the sensible Congressmen know this) that the results are due to large investments in basic science

    (.............)

    Sorry, I just fell asleep typing that last sentence. My point is that the public understands science as it relates to them. That means vaccines and drugs and smartphones. You can't arrogantly talk about science in the abstract and expect people to support you with their tax dollars. You have to connect it to their lives.

    How about we work towards changing the public rather than merely accepting the current situation as fact that nothing can be done about? Which might be the case, but as I said in my previous post, and as I don't think you understood based on your reply, the choice is between the following:

    1) Continue with BAU, which is to keep selling science as provider of economic growth, and keep most of it dedicated to that goal. In a world of infinite resources, this might have kept things going, but the world does not have infinite resources, which means that industrial civilization as we know it is guaranteed to collapse (which is already underway - conventional oil production peaked in the mid 2000s, and the crisis of 2008 and subsequent absence of recovery can be seen as the first of many mini-collapse events on the other side of the curve). This means that while the world will keep wasting two to three orders of magnitude more resources on much less worthy things than doing science, its willingness to support research will continue to decrease in the future, because the promised economic growth will not materialize. This will be mostly because of simple biophysical limits to growth, but also because as science progresses, it hits a point of diminishing returns. Which would have happened even if we were not in a deep ecological overshoot. Look at the situation in particle physics, for example, where they might very well have found themselves in a situation where there is no new physics to be discovered with any machine that could realistically ever be built. Eventually we may enter an era where the periods of slow gradual progress, separated by short bursts of rapid advances, which we have gotten used to over the last 300 years, will stretch to many decades, centuries or even longer, i.e. it will takes us very very long to make further progress because only very difficult problems will remain. Does anyone seriously think that a public conditioned to think science is there to deliver them cool gadgets would have patience for that kind of thing?

    2) We realize that if we continue with BAU, science is doomed (and with it, humanity as a whole, this is much much bigger than whether a bunch of neuroscientists blogging get funding or not - please get your heads out of the flasks and incubators and do some thinking on a global and very long-term scale), and do what we can to turn around society as a whole. A first step would be to stop digging our own grave with the kind of borderline-fraudulent promissory rhetoric that has been the norm so far. That strategy has a low probability of succeeding but a low probability is still much better than zero. Realize that it matters very little whether we will be able to keep this going for another 40 years or something if eventually it disappears anyway and with it the knowledge already accumulated.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Ola-

    That's not at all consistent with what I am saying. This is about asserting, rightfully, that science is a service requested by the Federal government, I.e. By the taxpayers' representative for the general good. I am not saying we should shut up about what we do at all. Quite the opposite. It's like dr24hrs' jihad against overhead and alleged waste. Let's put that up against the overhead, profit margins (don't forget that part), failures to deliver, sweetheart lobbyist shenanigan deals, etc, etc. Against all that I am full willing to argue the merits of all but the most nakedly intentionally fraudulent part of science. All else pales in comparison with other Federal contracting areas.

  • ecologist says:

    Received this yesterday from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences:

    "Tomorrow, Tuesday, September 16, the report from the Academy's Committee on New Models for U.S. Science and Technology Policy, entitled 'Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream,' will be released in Washington, DC. The report underscores the importance of research, particularly basic research, in driving innovation. It recommends increased federal support for basic research, reducing administrative burdens on researchers, and forming a robust partnership among universities, industry, and government to advance scientific discovery."

    It may be relevant to this discussion.

  • dr24hours says:

    Ah! I get what you're saying. It's important to have people actively fighting overhead bloat, financial fraud, and wastes now, while you're correct and the problem *is* far, far smaller than in other federal arenas. So that it never gets to that point.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    @GM: No, I did understand your zombie apocalypse scenario. I also understand that you think science should be used to retard and reverse economic growth. Good luck with that.

  • boba says:

    Your jihad against dr24hrs is little more than a tu quoque argument. Oh those ebil defense contractors steal, why can't we?
    The NIH pays universities to do science, it does not pay them to to hire deanlets and associate deanlets to create boards of inquiry how they can hire more deanlets. The frau's dev bio department was all but dissolved this past year, and when the finances were finally made transparent the dean had a choice - pay off the existing debts of the remaining (and funded) scientists or order an audit to see where those funds evaporated into... guess the decision.
    I don't care if it is .0001% of the stealing that Lockheed et al are getting away with, stealing is stealing and should not be tolerated at all. It's called integrity, a concept I doubt you are aware exists.

  • WH says:

    @ GM: Who said, "the average member of the public has only slightly more awareness and understanding of the world around him than a chimp does compared to what is required for humanity as a whole not to be the dysfunctional mess it is today, and is thus completely unqualified to have any say on these matters."

    Arrogance, pretentiousness, and contempt are sure ways to drum up support for government funded research, especially since those "chimps" get the same number of votes that you do. Also, I agree with boba- saying that Big Science is roughly as efficient as the defense industry isn't going to win hearts and minds. There's an argument to be made, even to small-government types, for government-funded research. Insulting their intelligence and pointing to the flaws of That Other Government Program Over There don't cut it.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Ommfg, boba! That is so morally decrepit I hardly know where to start

  • AcademicLurker says:

    saying that Big Science is roughly as efficient as the defense industry isn't going to win hearts and minds.

    I believe the argument is that government funded science is vastly more efficient on a return-per-dollar basis than not only the military but the majority of other government purchased services.

  • Dave says:

    Tomorrow, Tuesday, September 16, the report from the Academy's Committee on New Models for U.S. Science and Technology Policy, entitled 'Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream,' will be released in Washington, DC

    Ooooooh that should do it, yet another report.

    forming a robust partnership among universities, industry, and government to advance scientific discovery

    That literally means fuck all. Word, words, words.

    I'm off to write my congress douche.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Good point, MyT. I've been doing that, but it doesn't get very far (well, I do those things except for the part about listening to Rush or Ann).

    I'm pretty politically active, already - even protested the impending invasion of Iraq (on the streets and in letters) in 2002-3, but look at how that worked out. Besides worrying about the humanitarian crisis that would likely result (and is ongoing to this day), at the time, I remember arguing with a colleague about the financing of a war and what it would do to our national budget (take money away from non DoD scientific research), so that was a prescient thought, too.

    I still write and sign petitions that advocate for increased NIH and NSF funding, but that's not really going anywhere.

    The problem is that the many of our Congressional representatives don't really care to represent the people (even the people who listen to Rush, except in a very superficial way). In fact, Rush and Ann are basically just pushing PR for the people (corporations) that Congress does represent.

    Money makes the biggest difference, in terms of Congressional support, but we don't have much of that (especially given the current funding crisis). So, I'm not really sure how much our protests matter, unless you can figure out a way to get corporate backing (say, from pharm industry).

  • One of things that I liked most about living in DC was that unlike the rest of this country there was very little of this nonsense about scientists rolling in taxpayer cash that you hear elsewhere. Most of my friends and neighbors there weren't scientists, but they (or at least someone in their family) worked for the Federal Government in some capacity and so they understood the situation a bit better.

  • @Dave Actually, I think that *does* mean something, even if I don't like it. Translation: Academia should become the R&D arm of industry now that industry has basically gotten rid of their own R&D departments.

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