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 In Troubled Times.

The next problem relating to science funding that I wish to discuss is where will the money come from? Pure science is generally funded from the public purse. However, this may be an unreliable source in the not too distant future because most governments have funded a lot of their activities through debt. While the question of what level of debt is tolerable is something of an economic minefield, one point is clear: a number of governments are going to have to make considerable budget savings, and pure science is as likely as not to suffer.
Suppose such funding is cut by x per cent, how should scientists respond? My suggestion will not please everybody, but I feel that operational expenditure should be the first to go. Over the past thirty years, an enormous amount of data has been generated, and I feel much more can be mined from it. One example has come from planetary science: a limited number of papers are now being produced that revisits data obtained much earlier. Obviously this cannot go on for ever, but it might be better for the scientists to make an agreement with governments to sacrifice some current expenditure for the common good, on the understanding that the sacrifice is temporary, than the governments make the cuts anyway, and in the general fight for reduced funding, many good scientists are forced to become taxi drivers. To support my view, you might wish to read R. A. Kerr (Science 334: 1052-1053). While discussing the actions needed to combat climate change, the following points were made. First, David Behar was quoted as saying, "“We need actionable science.” He defined that as “data, analysis, and forecasts that are sufficiently predictive, accepted and understandable to support decision-making.” As Bruce Hewitson was quoted as saying that a result is actionable if you would spend your own money on it. Both men stated that they were drowning in data, but assessment was terrible, and there were very few actionable results.
What about applied science? Funding of science requires an actionable decision, so on what basis should decisions be made? It is usually considered that industry should fund its own research, on the grounds that there is no reason for the taxpayer to fund private benefit, and that call will grow more strident in difficult times. The call may well be reinforced through the issues relating to moral hazard, for example, why should the taxes of a company be used to support a competitor? It is one thing to have to compete; it is entirely another to have to assist your competitor. (However, I am far from convinced that some in the public sector appreciate this point.)
Nevertheless there are some issues that are so important to the community at large that they cannot be left to chance, and the production of fuel in the inevitable event of oil production being inadequate for demand appears to be one of these. So, who funds it? The most desirable source, in my opinion, is the private sector because they will be more focused on achievable goals, but what happens if they do not? If the governments provide funds, who benefits directly (i.e. gets to use the technology) and why? If governments provide funding, to whom do the funds go, and why? Funding on applied research should be a business decision, but who controls the expenditure, to ensure that there is a minimum of wastage? On the other hand, if nobody is funding the most critical research, is society prepared to suffer the consequences?
Posted by Ian Miller on Nov 28, 2011 11:04 PM Europe/London

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