Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Senator Flake's List and the Importance of Justifying Research

US Senator Jeff Flake recently released a hardcopy of his list of 20 "highly questionable" research projects funded by the US government. Professor David L. Hu of Georgia Tech was associated with 3 of them and wrote a very polite response, "Confessions of a Wasteful Scientist", describing potential benefits of the research and also noting his failures to communicate with the public more clearly about the research and its value. I would highly recommend you read his response.

All of this lead to a number of divergent thoughts:

  1. It's this type of political haymaking by Sen. Flake that is in large part responsible for researchers (and their associated University PR offices) having to overhype any little research result. It's why each week we have a new cure for cancer/heart disease/Alzheimer's (all at the same time for some really revolutionary cases), a new green chemistry that will get us completely off our petroleum based economy and a pill that will help us lose weight/look young forever/give us the hair that we always wanted (but only in the places that we want it). Researchers are having to sell the results of all they do so that they don't appear on some senator's list and the national news.

    While taxpayers certainly have a right to accountability for all government spending, this opportunistic politicking is NOT a responsible inquiry.
  2. Professor Paul Baran of the Scripps Institute recently spoke about increasing the private (corporate) funding of academic research. I see this as "meet the new boss - same as the old boss". The private funding sources, even philanthropies, are going to want to know that their money is being well spent. They certainly aren't going to publicly humiliate you or attempt to leverage your "inane" project to gain a competitive advantage, but they are paying the piper and so they will want to call the tune (or least the band and the album - you can pick the tune). I experienced this first hand back in grad school when my adviser took a small amount of some corporate money."Never again!" he was heard to cry.

    The idea that corporate money will fund basic research is especially laughable, given that corporations such as DuPont have been downsizing their corporate labs and assigning the staff to frontline divisions. (Other corporations are as guilty of this as well - they just are doing it more subtly and not making headlines.)
  3. Something that always seems to be overlooked when criticizing academic research are the side benefits, specifically the training of new researchers. Doing research in graduate school (and as a post doc) is critical to becoming a researcher - a bachelors degree just won't cut it very much. It doesn't matter how "applied" the research is, as long as the research field is deep enough and challenging enough, the end result will be one or more newly trained researchers, who can then go into industry, academia, the public sector...and be comfortable in doing independent research.
  4. This doesn't mean that basic research is dead (despite the comments from Baran highlighted in the article I linked to above). Over $13 billion dollars was spent finding the Higgs boson and the US contributed over half a billion of that. What this really means is that physics (and astrology/cosmology...) have done a far better job of selling their research than chemists ever have (and maybe ever will). When quarks have charm and flavor, the Higgs boson is "the God particle" and the Hubble telescope provides breathtaking pictures of nebulae, the public is captivated. In contrast, we chemists have supramolecular objects, ylides and ToFSIMS - not the same thing at all. Buckyballs were a good start, but ultimately flamed out. Even the personalities associated with physics (Einstein and Hawking) are popularized while our champions (Woodward, Hoffann,...) are completely unknown to the public.

    Much of this is the ability of physicists to work together on "big physics". The Manhattan Project started it all, and it is continuing with the various particle colliders, NASA/ESO, etc. "Big chemistry"? It doesn't exist and no one is proposing any such projects. And if if proposed, who would the field turn to to help sell the project to the public?
We can pine all we want for the good old days when money for basic chemistry research flowed easily and was unquestioned, but they're gone and not coming back. We need to justify our research now and into the future. Professor Hu, who I started this article with, gets it.

Previous Years
June 8, 2011 - It's a Bloody Good Mystery to Me

June 8, 2011 - A New Journal in Polymer Science

June 8, 2010 - Polymer Physics

June 8, 2009 - Memory Foam


stevo said...

I read Flakes List with some bemusement. There is a lot of poor quality research going around (I have to referee many poor quality proposals). Part of the problem is that academics are forced to do research and many are not really up to it (my guess is about half looking round my department). Much of the useful background stuff that used to be meat and bones in the physical chemistry departments are not sexy (polymer phase diagrams anyone), but much of the sexy stuff is not very useful.

I think part of the problem is that many of the studies highlighted were fairly serious, but we try and brighten up are grant proposals as they are often reviewed by non-specialists. e.g. instead of "Experiment and Modelling of fluid dynamics in a shaken system" which is why NASA was probably interested in it, we get "Why does coffee spill when walking?" which then gets onto Flakes radar.

I think a better question for Sen Flake might be "Given the many many millions that your office has soaked up over the years, how is this country better off?"

John said...


Thanks for your comments. I don't disagree with any of them, and think this might be a "meet in the middle" type situation....although...

I still like my third point - that researchers are being trained by (more or less) any academic research. My Ph.D. thesis was utterly useless (in hindsight), but I still learned how to do research. The fact that in my first job after graduation I was paying as much in taxes as I used to get from my fellowship said that supporting Ph.D. students is a win-win. (Yes, you have to allow for the fact that had I gotten a job 5 years earlier in 1984 (NOT!) with a bachelor's degree, I would have been paying taxes already (but on a lower income)...)

It still seems like