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Stupid science funding decisions? Australia’s not the only dunce

The Australian government’s ironic and perverse decision to better fund schools at the expense of already-promised university funding would make for a good episode of the 1980s sitcom Yes, Prime Minister…

Science, like the benefits stemming from it, is international and should be viewed that way. tuartpilbrow

The Australian government’s ironic and perverse decision to better fund schools at the expense of already-promised university funding would make for a good episode of the 1980s sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. Sadly such colossal stupidity, announced last month, is no laughing matter.

Nor is it particularly unusual.

The UK’s coalition government seems similarly intent on damaging its university sector with huge increases in tuition fees, as proposed in 2010. In California, the best state university system in the world (including Berkeley and UCLA) has been seriously degraded in recent years.

In March, the US Congress managed to pass a measure to finance the US federal government through the end of the 2013 fiscal year.

But the Senate version included an amendment that severely restricts the National Science Foundation (NSF) from approving grants involving “political science” unless the NSF can certify the projects are:

promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.

The amendment was the work of Tom Coburn, US Senator from Oklahoma.

More recently, one congressman asked John Holdren, Barack Obama’s science adviser, why Coburn’s two criteria, or at the least the criterion that the research “would directly benefit the American people” was not a good and proper filter to apply to all NSF grants.

Holden responded that:

[It is] a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding.

Since NSF and its medical counterpart, the National Institute of Health (NIH), are the largest funders of basic science in the world, this is of concern to all of us.

Earlier this month Kenneth Prewitt – Carnegie Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University – responded to Tim Coburn’s research-funding ammendment with an editorial in the journal Science.

In it, he notes that the US (and everyone else) has “benefitted enormously” from the government’s partnership with scientific research, which has been carefully honed for decades. The restrictions mentioned above would be “a very large bump”. Prewitt outlines three risks from such a move:

  • Such a move favours research focused on near-term benefits. If the proposed restriction on political science funding had been implemented in the 1930s, there would have been little motivation to pursue research in Far East affairs; but when the second world war began, such information was very valuable indeed. Notably, a generation later when the Vietnam war began, there were no trained Vietnamese translators in the armed forced. No lesson had been learnt.

  • Coburn’s criteria would weaken the way in which science builds theories. Research in one arena often has unexpected application in another. As a single example, Prewitt mentions that political scientists Herbert Simon and Elinor Ostrom received Nobel Prizes for their theoretical work on government decision-making under condition of uncertainty. Such work has proven broadly applicable in today’s terrorism-sensitive world.

  • The third risk is to peer review. The proposed criteria would instill pressure to conform to Congress’ priorities rather than scientific merit. Such marginalisation is already an issue for fields such as evolution, stem cells, climate change and alternate energy, research that is often opposed by members of Congress and their constituents.

Prewitt concludes his Science editorial with the statement that:

Every scientist should vigorously contest any effort to apply those criteria more broadly.

But in better news, on Friday last week Science reported a “compromise” may be in the offing with regards to the proposed US funding changes.

To Prewitt’s idea that further marginalisation of “non-priority” science would be dire not only for the US but globally, we would add that many of today’s pervasive applications in the arena of mathematics and computation were only dimly envisioned when they were first developed. To name but a few:

  • Number theory and cryptography. Modern cryptography – used in systems such as the widely-used RSA algorithm – emerged from research in mathematical number theory from the early decades of the 20th century. Even the practitioners of number theory at the time doubted very much that it would ever be useful.

The British mathematician G. H. Hardy - known for his work in number theory – declared in 1940 that: “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.” He would certainly have to eat these words were he alive today.

Yet the FFT was originally invented by the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss to analyse astronomical data in the 19th century, and was re-invented in the 1960s in part to analyse 3D crystallography data.

  • The internet. The internet was originally conceived merely as an experimental test to link some US universities and laboratories working on research projects sponsored by the Department of Mad Scientists otherwise known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US Department of Defense.

Had Coburn’s criteria been applied at the time, it is highly questionable whether internet research would have been approved, as there was no immediate defense requirement for such a capability. Today the internet pervades society in the US and other first-world nations, and is the cornerstone of a large fraction of their, indeed all, economies.

  • Computer animation. Few could have envisioned early in the computer era that graphics and animation would have such dominant roles as they do today. Yet the history of this technology shows that it was originally developed at institutions such as MIT and the University of Utah in the 1960s, under government funding.

Similarly, unfettered funds from Canada’s National Film Board for the short animation films of Norman McLaren in the 1960s led directly to Canada’s current leading role in the commercial film and gaming animation world today – not least the country’s Oscar-winning “Canimators”.

From which we conclude

Certainly government-funded research should ultimately benefit society. But in what timeframe? And who will judge this benefit?

Australian MPs who are elected at most for three years? Members of the US Congress, who face re-election every two years? US Senators, who face re-election every six years?

We challenge our decision-makers to list six really good outcomes of highly-targeted short-term research. To help speed things along, the following should not be on the list:

  • penicillin
  • melatonin
  • aspartame
  • post-it notes
  • quantum field theory
  • X-ray crystallography
  • medical imaging
  • solid-state electronics
  • nano-technology
  • new materials
  • WiFi
  • charge-coupled devices
  • fibre-optics
  • gravitational boosting
  • the structure of the cell

Or, almost anything else that has really helped the quality of current and future life. Many of these enjoyed a large Australian contribution.

We pause to note that science is international: all funding agencies foolishly demand “expected benefits to our country”, yet all benefit from basic research done elsewhere. Thomas Jefferson put it best in a letter to Issac McPherson in 1813:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Real scientific research – especially “pure”, longer-term research – cannot be done on a two-to-six-year payback schedule (consider the “conquest” of AIDS, or the “war on cancer").

Government bodies in Australia and worldwide must face this unfortunate but absolutely incontestable fact.


A version of this article appeared on Math Drudge.