Science behind the scenes: The costs and payoffs of science

By: Bryan Moyers

Edited by:  David Mertz, Shweta Ramdas, Scott Barolo, Kevin Boehnke

Why haven’t we cured cancer?  Physicians have known about cancer for over 5000 years, and the United States spends nearly $5 billion per year on cancer research.  But there’s still no cure.  Also, where is our clean, renewable energy?  We can’t even catch half the energy in sunlight, and solar panels don’t come cheap!  Why don’t we have a moon colony yet or a male birth control pill?

In the U.S., science funding comes from many sources, including the taxpayers.  As an example, half a percent of the federal budget goes to fund NASA, before considering all of the money that goes to the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health and other federal science organizations.  It is reasonable that publicly-funded science should provide some benefit for the public, but it seems like there’s a lot of scientific research out there that’s not giving us the technologies and discoveries we want and need.   So why do we throw money at projects that don’t seem to deliver?

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The federal government has a long history of funding science
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Congressman Lamar Smith is interested in keeping science accountable to the taxpayers by only funding projects that directly address public interests and produce immediate results.  Maybe he has a point.  But who should judge which science is worth doing?

Who holds the purse strings?

We likely wouldn’t trust a businessperson to make sound military decisions without military experience.  They might be able to comment on how war would affect the economy, but not whether taking hill A or hill B is the right tactical decision.  Congress is accountable to the taxpayers, so it should play a role in deciding how much money is dedicated to research.  But for Congress to decide which areas of science are funded is like the businessperson saying that we should take hill A.  The people who are qualified to make that decision are scientists.  Fortunately, this is exactly how such decisions are made.

Taxpayer money is distributed by government agencies, such as the NSF.  To get funding from these agencies, researchers submit grant proposals, which describe important unanswered questions and explain strategies to answer them.  Then, a panel of scientists decides which studies are worth funding.  These experts do their best to determine which avenues are most promising, but even qualified experts aren’t prophets.  Scientists are exploring the unknown, and many winding roads abruptly end or seem to stretch on forever.

Science as a winding road

We never know where the next breakthrough is going to come from.  Take evolution and the age of the Earth, for example.  In the 1859 classic On the Origin of Species, Darwin reasoned that the world would have to be extremely old for evolution to happen.  In the late 1800s, Lord Kelvin used thermodynamics to argue that the Earth was at most ninety-eight million years old – much too short for Darwin’s theory (Kelvin’s estimate was flawed because he didn’t know about the nuclear fusion that goes on in the sun).

Then came the discovery of radioactive decay from an entirely different field of science, which actually supported Darwin’s evolution theory.  In 1896, Henri Becquerel thought the glowing crystals he was studying were emitting energy that they had absorbed from the sun, but he discovered they were actually producing radiation! This changed the debate around the age of the Earth because this radioactive decay meant that rock composition changed over time in predictable, measurable ways. In 1907, Bertram Boltwood used radiometric dating to form a new estimate: 2.2 billion years, long enough for Darwin’s mechanisms (Lord Kelvin was never convinced, and Darwin died before the discovery was made).  Our current estimate is even higher (4.55 billion years) because we have better tools and a better understanding of how radioactive decay works.  But who would have predicted that glowing rocks could answer questions about evolution?

In the eyes of Congress, would Henri Becquerel’s interest in glow-in-the-dark rocks have been worthy of funding?  The scientist-led grant panels make efforts to fund the kinds of research that has no obvious benefit to people because they know that such explorative studies can produce astounding, paradigm-shifting results.

 

Don’t seek, and you shan’t find

Scientists are explorers.  This was literally true in the Victorian age of science, when Joseph Banks traveled to Tahiti to see Venus pass between the Earth and the Sun, or when Charles Darwin sailed around the world on the HMS Beagle.  But it’s true even today — whenever a scientist performs an experiment, they’re venturing into the unknown.  They might have some idea of what they’ll find based on previous published science, as if listening to cryptic words uttered by a traveler in the shipyard.

This we can be sure of:  If we never set sail, we won’t make discoveries.  If we don’t pursue scientific endeavors, we’ll never develop reliable renewable energy, cure cancer, or establish a colony on the moon.  But when we see a mad captain on his fifth voyage to find the lost city of Atlantis, we have to ask “When is enough enough?”

Take, for example, the prospect of nuclear fusion as a clean energy source.  Some believe that it could produce three to four times the energy of current nuclear power, with none of the harmful byproducts.  It’s also a running joke that fusion power is always 30 years away.  Because fusion research hasn’t produced results yet, the funding is threatened.  After all, who wants to put money into something that doesn’t pay out?  As the funding is restricted, the length of time it would take to harness nuclear fusion power (if ever) continues to increase.  Is fusion energy achievable?  Should we deny the mad captain funding for his latest voyage?

If the captain has good enough evidence or a convincingly novel idea or hypothesis, he should get the funding.  In grant review panels, quixotic ventures might get funding, but unless good results or evidence are produced from the venture it’s unlikely that funding will keep coming.

Necessary, but not sufficient

Science has limitations and uncertainties, so we can’t expect it to solve all of our problems.  We may never have a male birth control pill, so it’s important to provide comprehensive sexual education and make current birth control options widely available.  We may never have a cure for cancer, so it’s also important to focus on prevention and on quality of life issues in patient care.  We may never have a moon colony or truly clean energy, so we have to make our behaviors here sustainable.

Even though the process is unpredictable, scientific research continues to be in the public interest — just not always in the expected ways.  For instance, CRISPR genome editing is revolutionizing what scientists are able to do in the lab, allowing us to better understand the human genome, disease, and medicine.  It was discovered studying the immune system of microbes!  This wonderful discovery wouldn’t have been possible with funding that focused only on immediate payoffs. As with so many other important breakthroughs, it required the winding, stumbling process of science over many years.

About the author

Our secobryannd co-founder, Logistics Coordinator and Senior Editor, Bryan Moyers, is a doctoral student in the Bioinformatics program at the University of Michigan. Bryan’s research focuses on methodological problems in molecular evolution, and correctly inferring information from data. In other words, his research sheds light on problems with the methods commonly used in the field of Evolutionary Biology so that improvements can be made. Bryan holds degrees in Biology and Psychology from Purdue University. His interests are in science and education issues, philosophy of science, and the intersection of science and business. Outside of science, Bryan enjoys reading, running, hiking, and brewing/consuming beer.

Read more by Bryan here.

 

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