The most pressing issues in science illuminated by those who know them best: working scientists
Featuring 24 articles and 18 scientists
Late last week, Senator Rand Paul gave a speech that, on the face of it, seemed innocuous enough: he told the Senate Finance Committee his ideas on how to reform federal funding for science. But his proposals, with few exceptions, should send chills down the spine of any scientist who does "basic" research.
Let's be clear: the way science is funded is not perfect. Scientists spend around 40 percent of their time preparing dense grant applications, and less than 20 percent of those applications receive funding. This system amounts to a stressful, hyper-competitive environment that stifles effective research. Most scientists would agree that we need reform to federal research grants. But this bill could actually hurt, not help, the situation.
The bill, called the “BASIC Research Act,” has four major components. First, it would add two new members to the review panels that hear applications: an expert who is not affiliated with an academic or research institution and who works in a field unrelated to the proposed work; and a "taxpayer advocate," who assesses the value of proposed research to taxpayers. Second, the bill would create a new office to oversee the grant approval process, again to ensure that research serves the best interests of the taxpayer. Importantly, the head of this department would be appointed by the president, rather than a grant agency.
Third, the bill would require results from federally funded studies be made publicly available; today, when a scientist wants to publish on their research, they can submit to private journals, which have expensive paywalls and other barriers. This part of the bill would ensure that any American can access science research articles for free, with exceptions for preliminary, classified, or patentable research.
The final part of the bill would require grant recipients to disclose where there funding goes, meaning more transparency of how federal money is spent, whether to employees, equipment, or subdivisions of the lab.
These latter two proposals could benefit science. They would make research more accessible, promoting collaboration and cooperation, and by requiring greater documentation during an experiment, they could make it easier for researchers to repeat tests. Making results free to the public could also reduce miscommunication between scientists and the public, which damages the reputation of basic science. In some ways, the second half of Paul's bill seems to directly respond to the many researchers who have called for more open-source science in recent years. Unfortunately, Paul does not only call for greater transparency.
In fact, his first two proposals, to put non-experts in charge of determining whether research has a direct benefit to the public, could upend some of the most fundamental work going on in science and exacerbate the already fraught funding system. Many basic research projects are critical to understanding the principles beneath real-world problems, like how research on cells informs cancer treatment, or studying fruit flies leads to discoveries about genetic disease. Basic research led to the discovery of penicillin and GPS, biotech companies, and the compounds used in military hardware. But these sorts of projects often do not have immediately clear benefits, and they'd likely lose funding under Paul's system. His oversight plan could mean long-lasting losses in science, innovation, and progress.
If receiving grants becomes that much harder for scientists, the application process will be even more competitive and stressful: more time spent on paperwork and less on science.
Further, giving the power over grant proposals to a political appointee could topple whole fields of research. If the president were to appoint someone who doesn't understand the value of basic science, he or she could suspend the research entirely, a turn that would negate untold benefits of the science and destroy the US's reputation as one of the most innovative countries in the world.
Even worse, the senators in support of this bill framed it in divisive and disparaging terms. Paul and his colleague from Oklahoma, Senator James Lankford, spoke at length about what they called "silly" science, saying it served no public good. Their claims sow distrust in science and portray scientists as greedy for personal gain, rather than working in service of science and society. They cited several research projects, misrepresenting their aims and results.
For instance, Paul repeatedly derided a $2 million grant that studied how children won't eat food that has been sneezed on. If you imagine $2 million spent solely to watch people sneeze on food, it sounds like he has a point about the reckless use of government funds. But this isn't how federal grants are used: they can go to a variety of different studies, experiments, and projects.
The research senator Paul is referring to is probably the work of Katherine Kinzler, from the University of Chicago, a psychologist interested in what children choose to eat and why. Her research has an obvious implication: how can we improve children's health through the food options in front of them? One of their many findings was that children avoided food that had been sneezed on. But that was not the focal point of the research, as a simple Google search would have shown Paul and Lankford.
Ironically, Paul prides himself on libertarian ideals, namely that government regulation should not impede economic growth or the liberties of American citizens. Yet this bill adds unnecessary obstacles that would hinder basic research, a major driver of innovation and business. Government intervention by misinformed lawmakers and unelected political appointees could slow or entirely halt the careers of many young scientists, myself included, who have spent years preparing to work in fields that boost the economy, technology, and public health.
It isn’t clear whether this bill has the support it needs to move forward. But I worry that its good portions, that would open up science, will push the bill forward despite the sections that would hurt basic science.
Here's my advice to lawmakers like Rand Paul. Instead of making policy that discourages research whose benefit might not be felt tomorrow, you should be encouraging them. These projects often don't seem important, and sometimes they require taking risks. But they often result in the most innovative and groundbreaking results – even research about "lobsters and treadmills." These projects lead to new fields of study, new companies, new treatments. They promote economic growth and progress. They're a wise investment for our government to make, for a generation of scientists and future generations of Americans.