Saturday, February 16, 2013

Faith Based Science Policy

Brian Cox is a physicist and largely due to his ubiquitous presence on the BBC, he is the Generation X face of British science. He also has more than a million Twitter followers. Today he tweeted this:
Readers here may recall my critique of Geim's piece, which centered on his wish for an asteroid to be on a collision course with the Earth in order to motivate policy makers to open their wallets for scientific research. Apparently someone must have called Cox's attention to my critique, because Cox responded to me today with a couple of tweets:

Despite the smiley, Cox's tweets betrays two conceits of the scientific establishment that hold on both sides of the Atlantic. One is that "basic research" is desirable -- not as a matter of evidence, but as in Cox's words, as an axiom. The second is that social scientists, and science policy scholars in particular, exist to generate evidence in support of that axiom in order to keep public funds flowing. Both conceits are problematic in science policy.

In a paper published in Minerva last year I explored the origins and symbolic significance of the phrase "basic research" (read it here in PDF).  In that paper I argued that the phrase originated about 1920 in the context of the US Department of Agriculture, where "research was the basic work" of the agency. The phrase was shortened to "basic research" which ironically enough meant what we today call "applied research."

Over time the phrase became part of the linear model of innovation, shown in the figure at the top of this post. The model is faith based, meaning that the relationship of basic research funding to societal benefits is taken as an "axiom" which often finds its expression in a misreading of economics. Scientists often demand a privileged place for science in government budgets based on claims that in "basic research" lies the key to growth and prosperity for all.

Unfortunately, the relationship of so-called "basic research" and outcomes like economic growth and other societal benefits remains poorly understood. For instance, in 2007, Leo Sveikauskas of the Bureau of Economic Analysis surveyed the economy-wide returns on R&D (here in PDF) and found a complex picture at odds with the elegance of the linear model:
Returns to many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero . . . Many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all, and do not belong in investment.
The exceptions that he cites include federal R&D in health, agriculture and defense -- all instances of mission-oriented applied research. The issue is further complicated by the fact that economists don't really understand where economic growth comes from.

There is of course a parochial political dimension at work here as well, which limits a broader discussion of how to better relate research with societal objectives. BenoƮt Godin, the innovation scholar at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal, explains (here in PDF):
The problem is that the academic lobby has successfully claimed a monopoly on the creation of new knowledge, and that policy-makers have been persuaded to confuse the necessary with the sufficient condition that investment in basic research would by itself necessarily lead to successful applications.
The politics help to explain why public debates over science policy tend to devolve into simplistic appeals for more "basic research" funding for scientists, rather than a more sophisticated discussion of trade-offs within science, or even how it is that we expect that R&D funding will contribute to the promised societal benefits. Once you take the importance of basic research as an axiom, the need for science policy research on the role of science in society disappears, except as handmaiden to the science lobby.

Cox is certainly not alone in making a faith-based appeal for for science funding. Of course the great irony here is that scientists who appeal to the importance of evidence in the making of policy tend to forget that good advice when it comes to the public support of their work.

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