In the ‘beginning’, Universities had strict rules to make sure their funding sources could not dictate faculty decisions. That was the origin of tenure system.
Then came a series of good ideas.
US government decided to impose a ‘victory tax’ on people. It was a good idea, because Nazis were very bad, the tax was only temporary (‘one time’) and, to sweeten the deal, government promised to refund the money after war. Wow, who does not want to pay for ‘victory’???!!
Government repealed victory tax in due time, but imposed another tax levy of equivalent amount. This time the tax was permanent. Still it appeared like a good idea, because permanent military needed permanent funding.
Dropping atom bombs on Japan ended WWII and it seemed like a good idea to use part of military money to pay physicists for nuclear research. After all, without their help, the war would not have ended.
Physicists did not want to live like prisoners in military barracks of Los Alamos, and went back to their universities. It seemed like a good idea to fund their nuclear research at the universities.
If nuclear physicists were good scientists paid by the government, why not other physicists, chemists, engineers and many others? It seemed like a good idea to have government-funded research grants for other scientists. NSF was born. (Note the catch word below - ‘national defense’).
The NSF was established by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. Its stated mission is “To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.”
By the time, space race (part of cold-war) ended, government figured out that scientists got adrenalin rush through ‘mini-war-like’ situations and people were more willing to pay for wars. Declaring ‘war on cancer’ seemed like a good idea. After all, who did not want cancer to be eradicated by 1975? National Cancer Institute was born. (In the following speech, note two things -(i) reference to world war to motivate the new ‘conquest’, (ii) government was only 16% of economy.).
By this time, government became the biggest game in academic town, and many scientists wanted to get money from the new Santa. However, this new Santa was so centralized that researchers could not simply knock on its door and give their wish list. Centralized procedures had to be created.
One of those centralized procedure was to give grants according to the performances of the researchers. Scientists wrote papers. So, it seemed like a good idea to measure that performance based on the number of papers.
That created a problem, because the high-quality papers of some scientists got as many brownie points as someone else’s low quality papers. Centralized body did not understand ‘quality’ and needed more concrete procedures. Using impact factor seemed like a good idea.
Impact factors are calculated yearly starting from 1975 for those journals that are indexed in the Journal Citation Reports.
The inventor of ‘impact factor’ made an unexpected high-impact discovery. He found that Science and Nature were at the core for all of hard science, core defined by his measure called impact factor.
The creation of the Science Citation Index made it possible to calculate impact factor, which measures the importance of scientific journals. It led to the unexpected discovery that a few journals like Nature and Science were core for all of hard science. The same pattern does not happen with the humanities or the social sciences.
It seemed like a good idea to ignore all those chit-chat about impact factor and simply give grants to those, who published in Science and Nature. Cell journal was born in 1974 and did not count in his calculation.
By this time, US society changed quite a bit. Women got liberated and blacks got ‘desegregated’. If you go to wealthy California towns like Beverly Hills, Woodside or Atherton today, you find a large black population, unlike prior to 1960s, when the society was segregated.
Therefore it seemed like a good idea to make science grants serve all kinds of social purposes - commitment to teaching, ‘equal opportunity’, community service, etc. With centralized donor, it was fairly easy to change the rules and pass the paper-work to hapless grant-writers.
Universities realized that Federal and legal paper-work were taking a lot of time for the researchers. It seemed like a good idea to establish a separate grants management department and take a cut from each science project. Institutional overhead was born. Professors were happy to be shielded from learning about constant changes in law.
Apart from war, a race was another thing people loved. An ‘international cancer race’ led to finding of two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) associated with breast cancer in a small group of people. The book “Breakthrough: The Race to Find the Breast Cancer Gene” was read by every Tom, Dick and Harry, thus bringing genetics to home. Around the same time, another group of scientists (Lap-Chee Tsui, Francis Collins,J. R. Riordan) discovered the gene related to cystic fibrosis.
Among all those scientists involved, Francis Collins was the one presenting the most positive vision with very specific timelines. So, it seemed like a good idea to give him the most money and responsibility. From his 1999 paper -
A HYPOTHETICAL CASE IN 2010
General visions of gene-based medicine in the future are useful, but many health care providers are probably still puzzled by how it will affect the daily practice of medicine in a primary care setting. A hypothetical clinical encounter in 2010 is described here.
John, a 23-year-old college graduate, is referred to his physician because a serum cholesterol level of 255 mg per deciliter was detected in the course of a medical examination required for employment. He is in good health but has smoked one pack of cigarettes per day for six years. Aided by an interactive computer program that takes John’s family history, his physician notes that there is a strong paternal history of myocardial infarction and that John’s father died at the age of 48 years.
To obtain more precise information about his risks of contracting coronary artery disease and other illnesses in the future, John agrees to consider a battery of genetic tests that are available in 2010. After working through an interactive computer program that explains the benefits and risks of such tests, John agrees (and signs informed consent) to undergo 15 genetic tests that provide risk information for illnesses for which preventive strategies are available. He decides against an additional 10 tests involving disorders for which no clinically validated preventive interventions are yet available.
John’s subsequent counseling session with the physician and a genetic nurse specialist focuses on the conditions for which his risk differs substantially (by a factor of more than two) from that of the general population. Like most patients, John is interested in both his relative risk and his absolute risk.
John is pleased to learn that genetic testing does not always give bad news his risks of contracting prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are reduced, because he carries low-risk variants of the several genes known in 2010 to contribute to these illnesses. But John is sobered by the evidence of his increased risks of contracting coronary artery disease, colon cancer, and lung cancer. Confronted with the reality of his own genetic data, he arrives at that crucial teachable moment when a lifelong change in health-related behavior, focused on reducing specific risks, is possible. And there is much to offer. By 2010, the field of pharmacogenomics has blossomed, and a prophylactic drug regimen based on the knowledge of John’s personal genetic data can be precisely prescribed to reduce his cholesterol level and the risk of coronary artery disease to normal levels. His risk of colon cancer can be addressed by beginning a program of annual colonoscopy at the age of 45, which in his situation is a very cost-effective way to avoid colon cancer. His substantial risk of contracting lung cancer provides the key motivation for him to join a support group of persons at genetically high risk for serious complications of smoking, and he successfully kicks the habit.
Please note that - (i) 23andMe was scolded by FDA for doing the exact same thing that he predicted would happen by 2010, that too without incorporating the benefits of improvement in sequencing technology, (ii) John cannot even get a functional healthcare website from the government in 2013.
Human genome was sequenced by a private company in 2000, and it seemed like a good idea to double the budget of NIH to help discover medicines.
USA was bankrupted by its banking industry in 2008, and it seemed like a good idea to ‘stimulate’ the scientists further with more borrowed research money.
At the end, we have an academic system and ‘tenured professors’ at the beck and call of those providing money for research, namely the people and the government. That was not the original design.
In this context, the proposal of Schekman (the editor of HHMI-sponsored ELife) of not using Science/Nature/Cell seems like moving from one funding source partly controlling science to another funding source fully controlling science, as someone commented elsewhere -
I am curious about the consequences of having luxury funding agencies like the HHMI and Welcome trust in charge of a journal. Have the funders run a journal seems to present a conflict of interest. Will the editors of Elife be under any pressure to review HHMI funded research? Or will they refuse to consider research that contradicts a member of their prestigious body? Will people without HHMI funding feel under pressure to publish in Elife to help get HHMI funding?