US Science Funding - Proposal for a Better Alternative (Part II)

If scientists have to recreate the science funding system today from scratch, what would the new system look like? Let us check the advantages and disadvantages of various alternatives. Please check here for part I of the commentary.

Option 1. Another Government-based System

Advantages

1. A centralized system is preferable by many researchers, because they do not have to submit grant applications at two hundred places to raise money.

2. Government creates a degree of stability that is not possible in the fast- moving private sector. Top organizations like Xerox PARC or Bell labs had to cut down research activities, when the businesses of their parent companies went down.

Disadvantages

1. The government funding system comes through force or implied force, and that is a major disadvantages for scientists doing long-term research. In bad economic times, people start to ask questions about the taxes they are paying and the scientists have to increasingly kowtow to public demands. We have been reading a commentary titled -

Why Shutting Down U.S. Antarctic Research Will Have Global Repercussions

In comment sections, readers asked questions like -

sciencetech, could you please explain what your group is doing in Antarctica and specifically how it is important to this country and to tax payers like me.

That kind of comments do not come only from non-scientists as you can see in this example.

I’ve worked in Antarctica myself. The U.S. doesn’t need to have such a large foot print down the Ice. McMurdo is the largest of all the installations down the Ice. It’s also very expensive to maintain and the science work being done doesn’t justify such a large expense. Under the treaty all research findings done down the ice must be shared with the other nations which are down there. So why not just combine all the countries which are under the treaty into one installation and share the cost.

From my personal experience at NASA, I agree with the above comment. The amount of waste at NASA and other government-funded labs is huge, and a fraction of money spent in those organizations reach the actual researchers. Private contractors run amok and many rules are created to support them rather than science itself.

2. Government-funded stability is artificial. After WW II, USA had surplus wealth and government had little problem collecting taxes from surplus wealth. With passage of time, that surplus wealth disappeared, but the government continued to maintain semblance of stability through heavy borrowing. At some point in future, the borrowing will stop and government will have to prioritize payments. That prioritization scheme is legally established and scientists have no place there.

Bond-holders and pensioners will have to be paid first based on fourteenth amendment of the constitution.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

Military will be paid next, because the government funds itself through force. There will be little left for scientists after that.

3. Even if people want to pay for certain research activity, they cannot do that through government-based taxes. Let us say you like to support Antarctic research. The best you can do is to pay taxes and then fill up your Facebook and twitter pages with greatness of the type of research you like to support to raise public awareness. Another person interested in funding cancer research does the same for cancer awareness. When 100 million people try to raise ‘public awareness’ for various causes, the ultimate result is cacophony.

4. Funding research through government based on above method ultimately creates unnecessary politicization of scientists and scientific organizations. Check the example of Nature journal in our previous commentary.

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Option 2. Crowd-funding

A number of crowd-funding networks came up in recent years. People propose certain ideas and costs and try to raise money to execute the projects.

Advantages

Crowd-funding is direct. If someone wants to fund research on ant colonies, he can pay for a project to fund research on ant colonies. There is no need to change the political process to select the government that will be favorable for funding research on ant colonies.

Disadvantages

1. Lack of stability: Crowd-funding has been good for small definable project, but may not be viable for uncertain long-term project. How many people would be able to evaluate the mathematical skills of an unknown mathematician interested in solving something like Fermat’s last theorem? Will failure to solve the problem lead to discontinuation of future funding?

2. Crowd-funding usually requires direct evaluation by people about the merits of the project. Therefore, consumer-based products (e.g. Ipad apps for a popular game) may have more appeal than abstract concepts.

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Option 3. Research Funds Created by the Wealthy

Advantages

1. The wealthy person controls the distribution. Therefore, creeping up of bureaucracy as in government can be kept to a minimum. After all, if the fund goes broke, it cannot tax or borrow to sustain operations.

Disadvantages

1. The wealthy person controls the distribution. Therefore, the types of supported projects depends on the whims of the donor. Example. There is no Nobel prize for mathematics.

2. Scientists cannot raise donations from ordinary people through this mechanism, because the donations may be insignificant compared to the main fund.

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Option 4. Disconnected Groups of Charitable Organizations

This model currently exists in USA. Many small and large charitable organizations raise money for various disease-related causes and then distribute parts of the funds to researchers.

Advantages

1. Supported research projects can be more long-term than crowd-funding.

2. People can donate and direct their money to causes they support.

Disadvantages

1. Decentralized. Too many grant applications.

2. Legal costs of setting up and maintaining a non-profit organization is high.

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Option 5. A Connected Network of Charitable Organizations

In the early days of the internet, someone interested in setting up a website to write had to also learn about HTML programming, maintain all cross-links and so on. That created a large overhead for ordinary writers. Today computer programs like blogger or Wordpress take care of many of those unnecessary tasks, allowing writers to focus on what they do the best.

We envision that if a science funding system is created from scratch today, that will look like a connected network of charitable organizations supported by a ‘framework’ that takes care of many of the overheads of setting up non- profit organizations.

The framework should -

**(i) Provide legal template so that small groups can start charitable funds under its umbrella,

(ii) Provide centralized grant processing system so that the scientists can focus on only one place,

(iii) Provide centralized fund distribution system so that hundreds of small funding organizations do not have to hire their own accountants,

(iv) Allows centralized grant review process such as in case of NSF or NIH.

So, essentially the connected network of charitable organizations will function like the government funding agencies except that -

(i) donated funds will not be co-mingled with government accounts and researchers/donors will not have to worry about military, CIA and NSA expenses.

(ii) the collection of money will be voluntary,

(iii) people (donors) will be allowed options on which kinds of project they like to see their money being spent,

(iv) donors will not be able to micro-manage the projects but rather will donate for broad categories,

(v) the charitable organizations under the umbrella will get higher degree of autonomy in defining which projects are worth doing rather than being forced on certain ideas from the top (discourage expensive ‘big science’ and encourage more small R01s),

(vi) the system should have enough checks and balances to ensure that it does not get hijacked by a few wealthy donors or the government,

(vii) the system should completely disallow borrowing money, because under the current legal framework, lenders get priority over all others in times of difficulty.

(viii) the system should be globally scalable, because the scientists of various countries have similar interests and like to collaborate. Moreover, many other Western countries are as broke as USA and are cutting science/education to pay the bankers.

(ix) the system should not pay for ‘overheads’ of supported organizations. Those ‘overheads’ often lead to rise of bureaucracies in the respective organizations. **

Is that too much to ask? How can we create a system, where the processing of tasks is centralized for efficiency, but the power is decentralized so that small groups do not take over the control? Can such a system exist beyond national boundaries? Those are the main problems.

Do you want the leading science journals and their editors to ask such realistic questions, or resort to childish politicization of science?

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Written by M. //