That’s a decision beleaguered governments must increasingly make.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., issued today’s 73-page report, “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope,” after months of signals from GOP leaders that the agency’s programs would be targeted. – Alan Boyle, “Funny science sparks serious spat” (MSNBC, May 26, 2011)
One hardly expects MSNBC’s Cosmic Log to defend research cuts, and – let’s face it – the silly “space aliens/multiverse/origin of life/Darwin explains tiddlywinks tournaments” projects make the easiest pop science news stories. Boyle knows that as well as anyone. Yethis protest that some silly-sounding projects are not in fact silly has a grain of truth:
The towel-folding robot, for example, is part of a project to see what it would take for robots to handle relatively unstructured tasks ranging from cooking to surgery.
It matters because aged seniors, for example, need inventions that enable them to live safely and comfortably in their homes.
That said, uncritical acceptance of the science lobby’s claim that – of all things, peer review – is the answer is pretty naive. That’s letting the dog decide how many cans of food he needs per day: “An answer,” surely not “the best answer.” So what is? (Here are some of the contemporary problems with peer review anyway.)
What it comes down to is a moral issue:
Should the public be expected to fund research that many of us find interesting and exciting – that will maybe answer philosophical questions, and makes for great, easy copy for us writers – but in a time of budget shortfalls is not clearly tied to their welfare? Traditionally, such research wasn’t expected to be government-funded. Say what you want about the Harvard Origin of Life project – it’s Harvard’s endowment and they can spend it however the endow-ers will accept.
One researcher complained to Cosmic Log’s Boyle:
Among the scientists who feel dissed by Coburn’s report is a Twitter pal o’ mine, SETI Institute astronomer Franck Marchis. “He is attacking my research on multiple asteroids, stating that I am looking for aliens since it is hosted by the SETI Institute,” Marchis writes.
Fair enough, but why must the public be on the hook for his research? If not enough people will fund research on multiple asteroids privately, doesn’t that just mean that not enough people care?
Now, contrast his research with work on antimalarial strategies or treatments for prostate or ovarian cancer. I can justify sticking the taxpayer with the tab, on the grounds that he or she may get the bad news a few years down the road, and the best real-world answer is to say, “Today’s survival rates are much better than yesteryear’s. Because you paid then, you benefit now.” If survival rates have not improved, we may need to revisit research strategies. But either way, the actual need for treatments that work is a backstop against wasting money in the pursuit of chimeras.
The Biologic Institute (ID-oriented biology research) is privately funded, and that must be a hardship, but it has not stopped them from doing research. Conceivably, it’s a help. Limited budgets and demanding donors do concentrate the mind.