Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Science Funding

A comment on a previous post suggested the process of science funding was faulty, so I thought I should comment on a situation that is occurring here (New Zealand). I have no idea how general this is, but I think it is serious, not because of what is happening, but rather what is not happening. If scientists wish to keep being funded from the public purse, I think they have to make certain the outward perception is one of dynamism and value and that the money is advancing something.
About a year ago, the Prime Minister announced that the government would put an additional sum (about 4% of science budget, plus or minus quite a bit because of certain vagueness in the announcement) for the express purpose of doing something new. He then asked the public to submit challenges for this money. So far, surprisingly good! For once, the public is involved! We can always quibble about the amount of money, but recall that right now we have something resembling an economic crisis throughout the world, particularly relating to government debts, so such quibbles border on the pathetic. We should be grateful for what comes!
The problem soon surfaced. A large number of challenges were submitted, and an expert committee was set up to sort through these. Eventually, ten were published as successful. My guess is that none of these were actually submitted by the public, because they all looked like they came from a committee. Like motherhood and apple pie, you could hardly dispute that they were important, but on the other hand, there was a total lack of originality, incisiveness, etc. What I suspect happened is that the best of what was received was put into a blender and mush emerged. While it may be quite reasonable to blend in everyone's ideas, on closer analysis, it ended up appearing to be “feel-good” money to be spread around existing science organizations to continue doing more or less what they were doing. This image was not helped when I heard on a radio program a representative say this work was important, and just because such programs already had funding, that was no reason not to spend more money on them.
That is all very well, but I think there were several negatives from this. The first is, a number of citizens spent quite a bit of their own time putting together challenges, and wading through the “bureaucratic-speak”, and I feel they deserve better than to be simply ignored later. If nothing else, a response thanking them for their efforts, and explaining why what was accepted was felt to be more important than what they submitted. Most people would accept the concept that if someone put in something that was reasonably more important, it should win. The second main one is that it looks as if the original purpose has been subverted for the benefit of institutions. The third one is that the winners are so vague they cannot be measured, therefore there is no way that the government can later say the exercise was a success. These are very important reasons. Scientists have to accept that it is important to carry the public with them, and when the government gives money, it is important to give the government something to promote now and boast about later. As yet, no money has been allocated. What I think should happen is when it is allocated, it is done so with public fanfare, to give the impression that something good could arise from this. What should not happen is that the allocation gets buried in a pile of bureaucratic files. I do not know how general this problem is, but I do not see a lot of platform-building for science going on anywhere.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jun 10, 2013 12:38 AM Europe/London

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