Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Will Public Funds Ever Follow the "People Not Projects" Approach

Barack Obama glossed on science funding, in yesterday’s US State of the Union address. He didn’t quite explain why research funding shouldn’t be cut, but I’ll explain in a second. First, Obama pitches the vision of economic returns:
Now, if we want to make the best products, we also have -- have to invest in the best ideas. Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy. Every dollar.

Talk about leverage: 140-to-1.  I don’t know that number was derived from but it’s implied that that was the return on public funds spent. 

Mind you, the publicly funded genome project cost $3 billion and it’s now been between twelve years since the draft genome was released.  Biotech revenues in the US have been around $60 billion per year since 20111, so the 140-to-1 ratio isn’t that spectacular (but it’s certainly not insignificant).

He continues:
Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's. We're developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race. We need to make those investments.
There’s definitely an argument for maintaining science funding, and it goes beyond assuming that doing research is like making widgets; you can’t turn the tap off and on again when it comes to people doing research.

The argument for maintaining research jobs over long periods of time circles around maintaining ideas within the same work environment.  For lack of a better term, they do take time to incubate, and just as having the right people in proximity to each other might trigger a bright idea, keeping those same people together means that the same idea can be acted upon when an opportunity arises.   

If you lay people off due to budget cuts, they might find other research related jobs, but you’ve destroyed that unique research environment forever.

Peter Drucker’s Management is a wonderful book I’ve read that describes how research environments work using his context of a ‘knowledge worker’ paradigm.  If you’re a graduate student that wants to learn about how scientific researchers work and how they’re motivated, read Drucker’s book.

Nevertheless, there’s also precedence for fears that public science funding cuts affects jobs, as Obama impresses upon, but it’s not just academic research jobs.  Two years ago, reviews of research funding in the UK threatened to hit physicists and companies that rely on them:
Stephen Bold, managing director of Sharp Labs Europe, said his Japanese parent company, which invests £14m a year in the UK, was "very concerned about the availability of very good physics graduates in the UK." He added: "The majority of that money is spent on salaries and with local organisations like universities. I just don't think the Government has thought this through. The money you spend on universities attracts inward investment to do R&D here and that is big business." Again, there was the risk that any disruption of research funding would lose people to different industries or countries. 
It’s probably much better to see longer term, stable, research investments being made (i.e. on the order of 5-10 years at a time), than have on again, off again funds that terminate on a whim (or a global financial crisis).  Of course, the people directing these long term investments have to be good, and I’ll leave you with Jonathan Eisen explaining his “People Not Projects” justification for this exact approach:
The great thing about the "people not projects" concept is that the people funded here get to follow their own path.  They are not going to be constrained by the complications and sometime idiocy of the grant review process.  They in essence get to do whatever they want.  Freedom to follow their noses.  Or their guts.  Or whatever.  It is a refreshing concept and as mentioned above has been revolutionary in various areas of science. 
And finding the right people will always be the hardest part of anything worth doing!

1 Ernst & Young’s “Beyond Borders: GlobalBiotechnology Report 2012