Thursday, March 31, 2016

Phil Baran's thoughts on private versus public funding

Interesting to hear Phil Baran's thoughts on private funding and Elon Musk/SpaceX upon accepting honors from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (an organization I have never heard of before). From his conclusion:  
Ladies and gentleman, society’s message to scientists is clear: simple curiosity is insufficient justification for our research. Scientists are great at thumping our chests and getting on our soap boxes about the importance of fundamental research. And, we are right. The problem is that nobody is listening.  
The average taxpayer has no idea what we do and the long-term benefits of basic science. Arguably, the public is more interested in the air pressure of a football than the atmospheric pressure on Mars. Moving forward, in addition to making the most of precious public funding and occasional philanthropy, perhaps we should follow Mr. Musk’s lead and turn to the private sector to help fund our own missions to Mars.
Obligatory wisecrack: I feel like I'm listening to David Drumlin in "Contact."

Two problems that I see: first, I don't think there's that much private funding to be had. Second, do we really want the US private sector driving US academic R&D research priorities? I believe in the ideals of the free market just as much as the next kid who grew up in suburbia in the US, but given the choice between research priorities being set by Presidential appointees and Congressional funding approval versus Wall Street, I just might choose the government. 

23 comments:

  1. "...do we really want the US private sector driving US academic R&D research priorities?"

    Considering how far ahead Europe is in many technical fields, I'm not so sure that's such a bad model to follow.

    And it's far better than having no one fund anything substantial, which is the current state now and for the foreseeable future in the U.S.

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    1. I think it's not being funded because people don't want to pay taxes for stuff that won't help them now (you might elide the last phrase), and businesses don't want to do research that won't help them now. Turning research over to businesses that aren't interested in a future is not going to help in the long term, assuming there is one.

      I think Baran is hoping for wealthy people (who aren't susceptible to the stock market and the requirement for short-term payback) to fund research, and while some might, they probably have some of the same problems businesses have in doing it right (if I don't have short-term goals, how do I know I'm doing well or wasting money and time?), and there aren't going to be many of them.

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  2. "Arguably, the public is more interested in the air pressure of a football than the atmospheric pressure on Mars. "

    I would say this to be factually, not arguably.

    Private funding is a nice idea but beyond some uber wealthy people won't generate much interest. Wall Street doesn't care abound potential returns in 25 years, no matter how big they may be.

    As for preference of funding from Wall St. or govt, seems to me six of one...The idea of the Louie Gohmert's or Michelle Bachman's (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Damah0KH-Co) making funding choices surely can't be worse than JM Pearson or that other pharma investor who's been in the news lately. To be fair, for all the griping and moaning about how useless and inefficient government is, I don't know of too many other organizations able to invent the nuclear bomb or land a man on the moon.

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  3. In light of how much academic research is non-reproducible these days , especially in the biological sciences (and if its in a glamour mag), I am not sure if the current government model is still a good one. Extreme competiton, which drives fraud, has made it worse in the past 20 years.

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  4. I was just having this discussion with my lab tech the other day. I think one problem with private funding is that the general public will likely be drawn to the flashiest marketing rather than the best science. They who claim to be curing cancer will likely get the most attention, even if the scientists are second rate and have very little chance of making any impact. And within the realm of cancer research a so-so scientist with a great marketing campaign could get significantly more funded than someone else who is considerably better.

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    1. Sounds like you are describing Theranos, but in the context of blood analysis.

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    2. Say, how is Ethan Perlstein doing, these days?

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    3. This is little different than the current model: impressing reviewers/study sections with sharp presentation/hyperbolic statements is much more important than scientific merit

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  5. Call me cynical, but I don't think most of the public has *ever* really had a genuine interest in or appreciation of the long-term benefits of scientific research, except for rare times like the end of WW2 and a few times during the Cold War. Better science education and communication are definitely important, but it's really to keep the public barely interested.

    The public tends to appreciate science when the results are in, but doesn't support it as much when it wants to take off. I am increasingly convinced that most basic, government-funded as well as industry-funded scientific research comes about not because of the public but in spite of it.

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  6. I'm actually okay with cutting funding.

    My own opinion, but I think most fields are incredibly saturated, and this is combined with a lack of real collaboration (toxic personalities, as well as "hes-going-to-steal-my-idea" for which the publish-or-perish model is somewhat at fault).

    There's a lot of redundancy in research, too.

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    1. When jobs are created exponentially and pay lines are around 40%, academic science seems to work efficiently.

      If jobs are not increasing exponentially, or remain stable (or declining), and with paylines at 10%, academic science is extremely wasteful.

      I dont support increases in NIH funding myself, because the money will probably go to the wrong places--mostly nowadays to administrators, managers of labs, and inactive faculty who refuse to retire, rather then the poorly paid people who conduct the research.

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  7. This is a classical problem of Vision & Leadership because as Baran suggests scientist tout "the importance of fundamental research. And, we are right. The problem is that nobody is listening." The lack of basic scientific literacy and desire for a quick obvious ROI from majority of public does create resistance where this needs people to stand up to explain hard reality truth that most discoveries do not instantaneously occur nor have immediate applications. I do see part of this is understandable backlash to past NIH and other government support was for extremely esoteric and nonsensical investigations (sometimes likely pork barrel spending in disguise) in days where there was a lack of guidance and rational discretion in funding process. To a large degree NIH itself has shifted to attempts to involving more in implementation of science verses stretching the bounds of knowledge (used to be the goal without less productivity concerns). Now pendulum swung the other way where everything gets unrealistically justified with possible short translation to applicability to garner support resulting in over-hype and disappointments to the public. Leaders in science and more so key members in Congress must be open that a certain percentage of funding should target that early exploration phase that may end up with nothing substantial or the resulting vital innovations could be many years from visible impacts. I believe that such R&D enablement should be a prime government function although business and wealthy private foundations can play a role with greater undesignated support rather than the usual giving for specific projects because the do expect immediate outcomes aligned with their missions.

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  8. The only reason he's talking about this is because his private funding fits into his story for his recent work, and he's trying to use it to make himself look like he's thinking deeply about big issues. He knows the reality is that he's lucky to have private funding and he would take money from any source he could. If he hasn't already, ten seconds of pondering would tell him the private sector is even more short-sighted than the government and this would never work on a large scale.

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    1. Most academics who are able to (at least ones at top institutions who have larger labs) take money from a variety of sources--pretty much wherever they can get it. These include private foundations (Gates foundation, etc.), private donors, industry collaborations, and federal money--ideally from several agencies (not just NIH, but NSF, DOE, DOD, EPA, etc. if they are able to angle their research in that way that is relevant). I've even heard of people doing kickstarters.

      You can pontificate on the pros/cons of these sources of money, but at the end of the day, you take what you can get.

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    2. Phil NEEDS money from every source he can get: that 100% overhead is a helluva mouth to feed

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    3. The Iron ChemistApril 4, 2016 at 8:56 AM

      I agree with the core point. When the private sector collaborates with academia, they normally seek a federal grant to foot most of the bill. Having a private donor provide money out of their own proverbial pockets with minimal strings attached is rare and essentially unobtainable unless you're Baran-level.

      That Baran can land such money is awesome for his lab, but this path just isn't an option for most academics.

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  9. A quote from the bottom of page 1 of Baran’s statement: “Countless life-saving medicines, agrochemicals, unprecedented materials, light-harvesting polymers, longer-lasting paints, rust-free cars – all of these things are possible because of advances in fundamental organic chemistry.”

    Not so quick. As a former coatings chemist, I’ll limit my comments to the subjects of longer-lasting paints and rust-free cars. Longer-lasting paints have come about because of better understanding of adhesion between paint layers and various substrates, with strong contributions from improved control of polymer architecture and more effective paint additives. Surface and colloid chemistry have also played an important role in the understanding of adhesion (this is not a trivial problem). All of these areas of chemistry and material science apply to the development of rust-free cars, which likewise depend on coatings containing reactive inorganic pigments, or on inorganic coatings such as the zinc galvanic ones.
    Frankly, longer-lasting paints and rust-free cars are a direct result of polymer science, surface chemistry, and inorganic chemistry. Fundamental organic chemistry is a distant fourth in terms of contributions to these two subjects.
    I don’t know where Baran got this opinion from. He ought to read up on these two areas of technology; I think it would be illuminating for him (maybe I ought to send him an email. The relevant chapters in the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology would be a good starting place).

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  10. Just another pompous, self-absorbed Harvard trained academics drifting in delusional grandiosity about its own importance in the world. What else is new?

    Why can't the dumb, uneducated, unsophisticated, football loving idiotic masses just give me all the money I desire to develop my very personal idea of what science should be and shut the heck up?

    What is wrong with the wold?

    I don't know Phil, I really don't know what is wrong with this world.Could it have something to do with the fact that for most people living between Cambridge MA and Palo Alto, life sucks a** and they couldn't care less about self-aggrandizing academics raking in 6 figures crying for more free sh*t because, lest face it, they are so awesome?



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    1. OTOH, here Baran appears very humble:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEtxytGQijY

      Smart guy and *apparently* nice, giving credit to his students. Wow.

      But then again, there are people like the famous synthetic chemist (forget his name)at Penn who, at a talk he gave when I was a grad student, named a reaction after himself.

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    2. Famous Amos?

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  11. I just sat through a seminar on Parkinson's research, specifically about the protein most associated with it. And there is apparently some controversy in the field about structure/function. The groups that shook up the long held belief about the presumed structure have NOT been able to get NIH funding for research, basically being told they must be wrong. The NIH is apparently rather conservative. The Michael J Fox foundation, on the other hand, is very willing to support new lines of thought. Until today I would have agreed that private or industry funding was a bad idea, but this changed my mind.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Unknown!

      (So the group of people that is standing in the way of more funding for the minority position - who are they? Other academics?)

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    2. I believe one of the rounds of NIH grant peer review is done by external to the NIH academics. I imagine the reviews that come back from a PI ( or friend of a PI) that had their own research questioned would be pretty nasty. But, you'd think the NIH would be able to parse out the difference between bad science and legitimate questions being raised to the current thinking.

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