Thursday, May 15, 2014

Yes, Science Can Save Government Money

Mark Strauss, at io9, writes this about the abolished U.S. Office of Technology Assessment:
Last week, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) tried to reopen the agency with minimal funding.

He failed.

The legislation—a proposed amendment to the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act that would have provided $2.5 million for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) —was defeated in the House by a 248-164 vote, with 217 Republicans opposing and 155 Democrats supporting.
It's amazing that $2.5 million can't be spared for objective science advice - by a government.  The NIH alone spends a thousand times that amount each year.  In the absence of a strong pro-science lobby group, similar to what Franklin's List is trying to become, an OTA is a much needed government service.

Maybe the OTA was disbanded because it didn't offer good value for money.  If only the benefits of something as intangible as science could be accounted for:
OTA had always saved taxpayers far more money than it cost. An OTA study on Agent Orange, for instance, helped save the government $10 million. Another report recommended changes in computer systems at the Social Security Administration that saved more than $350 million.
OK, maybe they can.  All governments should take notice.

The rationale for dissolving a office like the OTA was even more perplexing when you consider how Newt Gingrich suggested he could compensate for the lack of one:
"Gingrich's view was always, 'I'll set up one-on-one interactions between members of Congress and key members of the scientific community,'" recalls Bob Palmer, former Democratic staff director of the House Committee on Science. "Which I thought was completely bizarre. I mean, who comes up with these people, and who decides they're experts, and what member of Congress really wants to do that?"
That's a lot of running around chasing busy members of the scientific community.  I'd say that would cost more than $2.5 million worth of politician's time alone, never mind the additional burden and cost of all the meetings stemming from that.  If you don't pay for an office like the OTA, the costs are just spread around like a giant game of hide the umbrella. Either way, taxpayers pay.

Similar efforts to create a Parliamentary Science Officer in Canada have been set in motion by Kennedy Stewart, the MP for Burnaby-Douglas in BC.  Bill C-558 is the one to keep an eye on.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Paper Pusher, PhD

GEN reports on a recent report from the National Science Board (NSB) in the United States:
"Regulation and oversight of research are needed to ensure accountability, transparency, and safety," said Arthur Bienenstock, chair of the NSB task force that examined the issue. "But excessive and ineffective requirements take scientists away from the bench unnecessarily and divert taxpayer dollars from research to superfluous grant administration."
The rest of GEN's article can be found here and here's the original NSB report.  Here's how big the problem is, as summarized by the NSB:
A 2005 Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) survey of investigators found that PIs of federally sponsored research projects spend, on average, 42 percent of their time on associated administrative tasks. Seven years later, and despite collective Federal reform efforts, a 2012 FDP survey found the average remained at 42 percent.
That's right: 42%.  If you're thinking of going the research route, on average, you'll spend two hours of administration to do three hours of actual research.  This depends on what you actually consider 'administration' but I'd say 2 out of 5 hours is a good estimate: you might spend less if you have a small lab or are a postdoc, more if you run a big lab or have a fragmented mix of funding greasing the wheels.

Scientists reactions are mixed.  On one extreme, you'll find scientists who claim that anything non-research related is a waste of their time. I don't take this position; reporting and auditing is necessary to ensure that the buyer of research is getting a good return on their research dollars.  There are many questions that report docs should answer.

Some are obvious: Is the project making effective use of funding, and is time and money being spent on things that contribute to the research research goals?  Are funds being spent efficiently, or can the researcher be helped to spend better?

Some are more subtle: Are the right students and postdocs being hired to do the work, and are they actually being trained to do something the funder values?  Is the project fulfilling the goals set out by the sponsor, or has the scope drifted?

But regardless of the purpose, the problem with 'excessive' paperwork isn't that it's utterly pointless, it's that it detracts from the value scientists are best able to produce.  Scientists, in general, want to discover things, build things, create things, and write about all that experience.  But administrative tasks don't generally fall under what scientists would consider cool and if the tasks truly enter 'excessive' territory you take away the cool part of the job.